Automakers detail electric car plans at show

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - Many of the world's biggest automakers detailed ambitious electric-car plans that promise zero emissions but will demand patience from consumers and subsidies from governments to succeed.

Nissan Motor Co, BMW's BMWG.DE> MINI, General Motors Corp and Volkswagen's Audi were among the automakers who promised, at the Los Angeles auto show, to bring electric cars to market in the next few years.

Consumers have been clamoring for greener vehicles amid soaring gasoline prices and increased concerns about global warming. The costly batteries required to power gas-free electric cars, however, are not powerful enough to deliver the long driving range car buyers are accustomed to.

"It's going to be a tough sell," said David Champion, director of auto testing for Consumer Reports. "People are used to buying their cars and being able to take them anywhere they want. There are a lot of hurdles for electric vehicles."

Of the cars unveiled at the show, the first one consumers will be able to drive is the Mini E, an all-electric Mini Cooper that will hit U.S. roads next year. The plug-in car will have a range of 156 miles before it needs recharging.

Initially, only 500 Mini E vehicles will be available in two markets — California and New York — so the company can gather details on their performance.

They will only be available for lease, for $850 a month.

BMW executives said that despite being all-electric, the Mini E would be as peppy and fun to drive as cars with traditional combustion engines.

Other automakers echoed that concern, saying the car's performance was paramount.

"As a responsible manufacturer we have to look at what the Audi interpretation of electric drive will be and you will see this in the near future," said Peter Schwarzenbauer, a board member of Audi, which is also working on an electric car. "The car would be extremely good looking and you will have a lot of fun driving it — despite what's going on underneath."

Nissan and General Motors both have electric vehicles they plan to sell to consumers, beginning in 2010.

Nissan has yet to unveil its all-electric vehicle, but the company projected that about 10 percent of global vehicle sales by 2020 will be electric cars, equivalent to roughly 7 million units in annual sales.

But Chief Executive Carlos Ghosn conceded that a lot of uncertainty surrounds that forecast. "Whatever number I give you is going to be wrong," Ghosn said. "The reality is today there are zero electric cars on the market."

In order to jump-start demand for the zero-emission vehicles, governments at the national, state and city levels need to help provide incentives and establish infrastructure for electric recharging, Ghosn said.

Nissan has clinched tie-ups with governments in Japan, Israel, Denmark and Portugal as well as the U.S. states of Tennessee and, most recently, Oregon.

Under the automaker's new deal with Oregon, Nissan agreed to provide zero-emission electric cars for the state fleet.

State agencies and the utility Portland General Electric agreed to work together to create a recharging network and the technology that would allow parked electric cars to send power back to the grid.

Such initiatives are considered critical for electric car drivers so they do not have to return home every time their vehicles are low on power.

Similarly, General Motors is working to roll out recharging stations, according to Britta Gross, manager of GM's hydrogen and electrical infrastructure commercialization efforts.

GM's Chevrolet Volt plug-in car will have an all-electric range of 40 miles and a backup gasoline tank for longer trips.

Nissan said the initial cruising range for its first generation of electric cars could be 100 miles, but the company will look to boost that to near 200 miles by the second generation of the battery pack.

As a result, Nissan said it would lease the batteries to consumers to keep the up-front price of the cars down while giving them an easy way to upgrade.

GM, which has said the Volt's price tag could top $30,000, hasn't decided what it will do with the Volt batteries.

"If your monthly fee for the amortization of the battery, the electric cost, etc., is less than fuel... then it's an interesting business model to pursue," Volt line manager Tony Posawatz said. "But those are things we don't need to decide today."


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