Can you imagine this scenario: An American automaker leapfrogs its Japanese competitors with a gasoline-electric hybrid that gets 150 miles to the gallon and can travel 40 miles on battery power alone?
General Motors set out that possibility when it unveiled on Sunday the Chevy Volt, a concept car with a much larger electric motor than today's Toyota Prius.
If it's ever built, the car could push the venerable manufacturer to the forefront of next-generation car technology. But to win that contest, GM will have to win another: the auto industry's increasingly heated race for a new kind of battery.
The benefits are potentially huge. A more robust hybrid car could reduce America's reliance on oil and trim its greenhouse-gas emissions while giving a major boost to carmakers that find the winning technology.
"What you're seeing with GM is that they're going for broke on batteries," says Tom Gage, president of AC Propulsion, a San Dimas, Calif., company that retrofits hybrid cars. "There is a very real race going on here, but not just with General Motors and Toyota. All the car companies understand battery technology is key to electrifying the automobile."
This week, the Big Three automakers asked the federal government to fund a $500 million five-year battery-development program. To support their proposal, GM, Ford, and Daimler-Chrysler submitted to the White House a study indicating that the US was lagging Japan in battery development, according to press reports.
Experts say the contest amounts to a search for a technology that can power a car for 40 miles, discharge most of its power, and be recharged thousands of times without major deterioration. The technology should be reliable enough to carry warranties of 150,000 miles and 10 years. The search ranges from lithium-ion batteries, used in cellphones and laptop computers, to experimental systems that aren't batteries at all, such as capacitors.
The biggest and most visible contestants in the battery race are GM and Toyota. Besides unveiling the Volt concept car, GM plans to introduce a new version of its Saturn hybrid SUV. Both would be plug-in models, which means that, in contrast to the Prius, they would use much larger battery packs and come with a plug for recharging when the car wasn't in use. Two days before it showed off the Volt, GM announced two major battery partnerships that pit existing technologies against one another in search of a winner.
At the same time, Toyota is busy developing its own battery partnerships and systems for its plug-in program.
The battery race began in earnest in the early 1990s with GM's all electric EV1. It used lead-acid batteries, but later switched to lighter and more powerful nickel-metal hydride batteries, also used by Toyota's Prius, which arrived in the late 1990s.
But plug-in hybrid cars use larger electric motors (and smaller gas engines) than today's hybrids. That's why the search is intensifying for a new power source, such as lithium-ion batteries, which offer about twice the power and half the weight of today's nickel-metal hydride batteries.
"You can see where lithium-ion can be scaled," says David Cole, chairman of the nonprofit Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich. "The science is there. Yes, it requires engineering. [But] it's not like climbing Mt. Everest."
The companies involved in GM's two battery partnerships – Johnson Controls and partner Saft Advanced Power Solutions as well as Cobasys and its partner A123Systems – will soon submit rival lithium-ion batteries to GM for engineering tests. Toyota, too, is reportedly focused on lithium-ion technology.
Critics say it's not ready for prime time.
"The battery issue is a big problem," says Walter McManus, director of the automotive analysis division of the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute. "The technology is not here yet. It's not a matter of simply commercializing something that already exists. It's more serious than that."
For one thing, the engineering hurdles are big, these experts say.
"Saying battery technology is ready today for plug-ins is like saying we can have the technology for a moon colony – we just need to do a little engineering," says Ann Marie Sastry, a battery expert and professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Michigan. "System integration is a big thing and there are still scientific challenges. It's not just a matter of putting parts together."
Another challenge is costs. With their bigger batteries, plug-ins will be more pricey initially than today's hybrids.
"It's real expensive right now," says Davide Andrea, vice president for engineering at Hybrids Plus, one of several upstart companies that convert Toyota Prius and other hybrids into plug-ins using lithium-ion batteries. Despite the $32,000 price tag to convert a car, Mr. Andrea says his Boulder, Colo., company has several orders. "Right now only pioneers are doing it – government and individuals who believe strongly in making a difference," he says. "But as the cost comes down that will change."
Officials at A123Systems of Watertown, Mass., which makes the batteries Andrea is using and GM is testing, say costs will drop rapidly once they begin producing thousands of units.
Another question mark: safety. Sony last year recalled 9.3 million lithium-ion batteries in laptop computers because several overheated, causing a fire hazard.
Lithium-ion batteries for cars, subject to far greater pressures and hazards, use different technology, manufacturers say.
"We have a completely different approach that doesn't have that thermal instability," says David Vieau, president of A123 Systems. "Ours are safe."
GM officials have not set a date for the Volt. "We see real potential in using electricity as fuel and as a real competitive advantage for us, if we can develop this technology and get it to the market quickly," says Nicholas Zielinksi, GM's chief engineer for advanced system integration on the Volt."We've proved battery cells that give us what we need in energy storage and power capacity. The real challenge is tying the cells together to monitor them and seeing how they perform."