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Automakers are pressing the PHEV pedal to the metal


As original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) race to develop plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs), there also is a pursuit for new battery technologies that will carry the vehicles further, and faster on a single charge.

Ford Motor Co., Dearborn, Mich., is currently testing 20 plug-in versions of its Escape sport utility vehicle (SUV) with Rosemead, Calif.-based electric utility Southern California Edison. The Escape plug-in uses lithium-ion batteries from Johnson Controls-Saft, a joint venture between Johnson Controls Inc., Milwaukee, and Paris-based Saft Groupe SA, the world's leading manufacturer of nickel-cadmium batteries for industrial applications and lithium batteries for various end-users.

The test is expected to last three years.

"Based on typical American driving, a fleet of vehicles such as our Escape plug-in hybrid has the potential of displacing 60 percent of fuel consumption nationally," Mark Fields, Ford's executive vice president, said at a PHEV conference in Washington.

But battery manufacturers are a long way from providing batteries that meet OEM safety and durability standards at a cost and volume required to support substantial production of PHEVs for the mass market, he said.

"It's also important to note that most battery supply is currently being developed in Asia. For those looking to plug-ins to answer our energy security concerns, we must ensure a domestic battery supply. Moving from imported oil to imported batteries clearly would not address this growing concern," Fields said.

Although Ford is at least five years away from large-scale manufacturing of PHEVs, Detroit-based General Motors Corp. plans to introduce its heavily hyped Chevrolet Volt PHEV in 2010 and expects to sell 10,000 vehicles in its first year, while Dieter Zetsche, chief executive officer of Stuttgart, Germany-based Daimler AG, said he expects his company to have an electric Mercedes and Smart Car on the market by 2010.

GM has teamed with the Electric Power Research Institute in Palo Alto, Calif., which represents utilities that generate more than 90 percent of the power in the United States, and with two battery makers—Compact Power Inc., Troy, Mich., which is working with parent LG Chem Ltd., Seoul, South Korea; and a team of Continental Automotive Systems, Frankfurt, Germany, and A123 Systems Inc., Watertown, Mass.—that are competing to supply the Volt's lithium-ion batteries.

Renault SA-Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. is already developing the first line of battery-powered electric cars for electric car grid operator Project Better Place LLC, Palo Alto, for 2011, and other automakers are expected to follow.

Phoenix Motorcars Inc., a Rancho Cucamonga, Calif.-based PHEV start-up, plans to begin selling a small electric pickup truck by year-end with batteries based in part on technology from Altair Nanotechnologies Inc., Reno, Nev.

A Canadian public company has already sold more than 350 PHEVs, a third of them in California, since its 2006 start-up. The vehicles sell for around $15,995 and get the equivalent of 254 miles per gallon, or less than 2 cents a mile.

Zenn Motor Co. Ltd.'s two-seater PHEV (see page 30) has a top speed of only 25 miles an hour using standard lead-acid batteries, but the Toronto company is developing a bigger and faster vehicle called the CityZenn for 2010 that should reach speeds of close to 80 miles an hour and go 250 miles between power charges with new technology being developed by Eestor Inc.., Cedar Park, Texas.

"The competition will heat up once the big car manufacturers come out with their new products, but we have an exclusive agreement with Eestor," said Ian Clifford, founder and chief executive officer of Zenn, which stands for zero emission no noise. "Our ultimate objective is to become a drive system supplier to the majors and not to become another GM or Ford." BRIAN DUNN

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