Coming to a plug near you

DETROIT--In the next few years, the large incumbent automakers will introduce many types of plug-in vehicles, either hybrids or pure-electric cars. For a glimpse at those cars under development as well as specialty vehicles now available, the Business of Plugging In conference this week offered a "Ride and Drive" to see and feel what the electrification of transportation is like.

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Bright Auto's big Idea

This is the single prototype of the Idea, a utility van made by Indiana start-up Bright Automotive. The truck is a parallel hybrid that can run 40 miles on its 13 kilowatt-hour batteries and then get 40 miles per gallon when it operates in hybrid mode. It was built with efficiency in mind by using light-weight materials--aluminum in the chassis and frame and fiber composite in the cab. Interest is strong from many business customers, but the company is still seeking matching government grants to build manufacturing facilities. The goal is to bring the van to market by 2013. The company is also looking at retrofitting existing van models with its powertrain.

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Bright's mobile office

The van was designed to be a mobile office. In the back is space to carry equipment for cable providers or utility workers. In front is a desk, filing cabinet, and a touch-screen computer that uses GPS to connect workers. There's also a USB connector built into the dash. Bright Automotive is going after the fleet market because it allows them to sell to few customers but sell many units. Fleet operators are also good candidates for new technologies because they drive well-known routes and consider the total cost of ownership more than consumers. The upfront cost for this vehicle, the Idea, is about 40 percent more but it cost about 18 cents per mile less than gasoline trucks, according to company executives.

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Think City targets U.S. in 2010

A vehicle that's much closer to market is the Think City from Think of Norway. This is a pure-electric car that can go about 100 miles and has a top speed of about 60 miles per hour. The company plans to start making them for European customers later this year. Think is also in the process of picking a location to manufacture the car in the U.S. The plan is to make the car available in 2010 and potentially make a four-seater.

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GreenGoTek's lightweight compact

GreenGo Tek is a Michigan company formed last year to produce affordable electric vehicles. This car called the Cozmo is a neighborhood area vehicle, which means that it's limited to a speed of 25 miles per hour because of transportation regulations. But the chassis and battery pack allow it to go up to 45 miles per hour if a pending "medium speed vehicle" classification is approved, according to the company. The range is 60 miles on lead-acid batteries, which allows it to be relatively cheap--the retail price is $18,000.

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Plug-in SUV

There is a Department of Energy-sponsored project right now to test how plug-in hybrid vehicles affect the grid. A number of utilities, including Detroit-based DTE Energy are testing these vehicles right now, including this Saturn Vue which was converted to a plug-in hybrid. In its tests with a plug-in hybrid Escape, DTE Energy has put over 13,000 miles on the SUV and gotten 68 miles per gallon, according to DTE CEO Anthony Earley.

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Plug-in Ford Escape plug

Utilities are also testing Ford Escape SUVs which have been converted to be plug-in hybrids. The Escape usually has a 1.5 kilowatt-hour battery but the plug-in has a battery of about 10 kilowatt hours of storage, allowing it to go about 30 miles on batteries under 40 miles per hour, according to utility executives working with the vehicle. The lighted plug isn't just cosmetic--it also helps people find the charger at night.

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Myers Motors' electric three wheeler

Myers Motors is one of a handful of three-wheel electric vehicle makers. This vehicle can go at least 50 miles on a charge and drive at highway speeds. The company is shifting to lithium-ion batteries and is hoping to make a two-seat, three-wheel vehicle next year. The price for this model is $30,000, according to a company representative.

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Miles Electric van

Another vehicle that uses lead acid batteries, which are heavier and don't have as much power per volume as lithium ion batteries, is Miles Electric Vehicles. The company is targeting fleet operators with utility trucks and vans. It, too, is a neighborhood vehicle that tops out at 25 miles per hour and has a range of about 40 miles.

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Electric scooter

There were also electric scooters on display at the Business of Plugging In conference. These scooters are manufactured in China and then retrofitted to run on batteries by Ann Arbor, Mich.-based Current Motor. The cost of driving one of these scooters is about 1 cent per mile, according to the company. There are different ranges depending on the battery size, from 50 to 80 miles. Prices range from $5,499 to $6,799. Charge time is about four hours from a standard outlet.

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Home car charging prototype

Inside at the Business of Plugging In conference were exhibits from auto suppliers looking to develop products for plug-in vehicles. One display showed an application that a driver would use to schedule charge time and check charge status. It was developed on a separate computer but the intention would be to integrate it with the car's display system.

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Home car charging port

Part of the recommended infrastructure for plug-in cars is faster home charging connections. U.S. outlets operate at 110 Volts which will charge a plug-in car in between six and eight hours. Nearly all homes in the U.S. are capable of 220-volt service, which will cut charge time roughly in half. But in many cases, an electrician will need to wire a dedicated line from a circuit breaker for the car. The cost for that can be anywhere between $300 and $3,000 depending on the complexity and can take weeks to install.

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