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.