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Battery exec: Europe ahead of U.S. on electric cars

Amid discouraging news from U.S. automakers, the CEO of car battery company Valence Technology says Europe is poised to get electric vehicles on road before U.S.

In the race to deliver plug-in electric cars, European automakers have an early lead, according to Bob Kanode, the CEO of vehicle battery maker Valence Technology.

Austin, Texas-based Valence has been in the battery business since 1990. It already supplies batteries for the Segway Personal Transporter and is setting its sites on the auto market.

On Tuesday, Valence announced that French electric-bus and truck maker PVI will test Valence's lithium phosphate batteries for fleet vehicles in a deal worth $3 million.

As Valence seeks customers in the transportation field, Kanode sees Europe as far more mature than the United States

On Wednesday, The Wall Street Journal reported that a U.S. auto battery consortium plans to apply for a $1 billion loan in an effort to better compete against manufacturers in Japan, where there is already an established supply chain for lithium ion batteries for electronics.

Cash-strapped U.S. auto companies are pushing into plug-in electric cars with the first models from General Motors, Chrysler, and Ford, starting in two years. But the overall environment for introducing electric cars is better in Europe, according to Kanode.

"In Europe, the determination is absolute," he said. "They have had high energy costs our whole lifetime. Second, they want to decrease their reliance on foreign oil...And third, they are absolutely committed to improving their carbon footprint, both the public and the governments."

He said there are already a number of hybrid electric vehicles coming to market in the form of fleets of buses and delivery trucks.

Both BMW and Mercedes are said to be developing all-electric cars. Last month, Mini unveiled the Electric Mini, which it started testing.

General Motors, with its Chevy Volt, and Fisker Automotive have chosen gas-electric designs to ensure that cars have a longer driving range. Because of battery limitations, an all-electric car priced like a typical family sedan will have a shorter range.

Nissan and Miles Electric, for example, are bringing out all-electric sedans that are expected to have a range of 100 miles and 120 miles, respectively. Rather than as a replacement for a gasoline car, the companies intend to sell them as secondary cars used for daily commuting and errands, according to executives.

Valence's Kanode expects European automakers to take the same tack with electric passenger cars.

"They are very aggressively going after these markets, and they want them," he said. "(In the U.S.), the companies aren't here, the determination isn't here, and the markets aren't here...It's absolutely no comparison."

He added that the rapid move into electric vehicles has caught the interest of electricity suppliers, which can use batteries to store energy from wind or solar plants, or to provide backup supply.

United Kingdom-based National Grid is purchasing batteries from Valence for testing, he said.