Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Electric cars face battery of hurdles

by: Sharon Terlep / The Detroit News

In the rush to deliver an electric car to the masses, General Motors Corp. is finding that the all-important battery might not be the only major hurdle.

The heating and cooling systems, for example, are a challenge because they typically are built to run off a traditional fuel combustion engine. That means new types of air conditioning and heating systems must be built.

GM, in a high-stakes race with Toyota Motor Corp. to turn out an affordable, effective battery-powered car, has found that while the lithium-ion batteries themselves are hitting all the marks on early road tests, a host of other issues are beginning to crop up.

Chevrolet Volt concept

"People tend to believe that if the battery question is solved, everything is solved and the vehicle will work," said Frank Weber, GM's vehicle line executive in charge of the electric car program. "But beyond the battery, the electric vehicle presents challenges that are significant."

A typical modern stereo system, for example, drains too much juice from the battery life. At the same time, there still isn't a supplier base to provide parts for the mass production of electric vehicles.

The quandaries underscore the complexity of what GM and other automakers are trying to achieve in creating an electric car, a feat that involves far more than simply swapping an engine for a high-powered battery cell.

GM executives say, despite the challenges, they still hope to meet a 2010 production goal for their first battery-powered offering: the much-hyped Chevrolet Volt.

The Volt is a variation of a plug-in hybrid vehicle, which Toyota also is racing to bring to market. Nissan Motor Co. and Ford Motor Co., too, are working on developing lithium-ion batteries that are more powerful and durable yet smaller than the nickel-metal hydride batteries in current hybrids.

Durable battery is first task

In the case of the Volt, the battery would drive the powertrain, and an onboard fueling system would recharge the battery on the road. GM is working on that fueling system, known as E-Flex, which would run on gasoline, diesel fuel and hydrogen fuel cells.

Unlike gas-electric hybrids on the road today, everything in the Volt would run solely on battery power. The engine's only job would be to recharge the battery.

GM's first task is to produce a lithium-ion battery that is long-lasting, durable and affordable.

Then, the legions of engineers working on the battery face the challenge of putting together all the components -- from tail lights to heaters -- so that they drain significantly less power from the battery. Once those pieces are in place, GM must build a base of suppliers to provide parts on a mass scale.

"The battery is important, but all the other components are electrified as well," Weber said. "There is not an established supplier community for this. It's a very complicated system with known technological solutions. But they've never been integrated in these forms."

Toyota, which also has set a 2010 goal for producing a plug-in version of its Prius sedan, has the same issue. But the Japanese automaker also has the advantage of having pioneered gas-electric hybrid technology and being the world's leading seller of hybrids.

"The accessories can be a huge draw on the battery, and those have to be managed as well," said Jaycie Chitwood, a strategic planner for Toyota's advanced technologies group.

"But in terms of getting the technology in place, it's a secondary issue."

Because of the limitations of a battery, both automakers are likely to find it virtually impossible to deliver a plug-in vehicle that operates identically to a similar size gas-powered car, said analyst Jim Hall, president of 2953 Analytics LLP in Birmingham.

Efficiency needs to improve.

"An automobile with a gasoline engine as the power plant has a lot of energy on board -- so much energy there are things that we never paid attention to," Hall said. "When you're relying on the battery, all these problems stack up and you realize you have to do all these other things to optimize for range."

In many cases, he said, the suppliers will be better equipped than the automakers to improve on the efficiency of vehicle components.

"This is not so much a matter of invention," he said, "as much as it's an application of technology they wouldn't normally do."

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