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Electric cars charge ahead

At least nine major car companies promise plug-in vehicles by 2013.

A plug is seen coming from the Chevrolet Volt electric car during the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Michigan January 13, 2009.

Mark Blinch/REUTERS

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Armin Kusig is living a new American dream – one that lightens his fuel costs and puts a smile on his face. Driving a plug-in hybrid car that gets much of its locomotion energy from a battery, he gets up to 100 miles per gallon and recharges overnight from a socket in his garage.

Average fuel costs to commute 55 miles daily? About $1.62 – 15 cents for electricity and the rest for gasoline – if gas is priced at $2 per gallon.

Yet Mr. Kusig’s reality is still the future for the rest of the nation. Only a few dozen plug-in hybrids are on the road today. Most current plug-ins are conversions by do-it-yourselfers or by companies that charge $10,000 or more. Kusig, an engineer from Wayland, Mass., converted his hybrid Honda Insight into a plug-in by adding a built-in battery charger and a mechanism that lets him control the electric motor.

But the plug-in dearth seems set to change before long. A combination of unpredictable gasoline prices, prodding activists, unsold SUVs, and hefty government financial incentives for plug-ins have changed the game. After years of foot dragging, major car companies are at last accelerating into a market for electric-powered vehicles of all kinds, analysts say.

“They’re making pretty good progress,” says David Cole, chairman of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich., of GM and other companies’ development efforts. “They’re doing this for real.”


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