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GM partners with utilities to advance plug-in hybrids

General Motors, electric companies, and the Electric Power Research Institute aim to lay the groundwork for stations to charge electric cars.

SAN JOSE, Calif.--General Motors is teaming up with 30 utilities in 37 states and with the Electric Power Research Institute to develop a charging infrastructure for electric cars.

They aim to fine-tune the technology, safety, and customer experience for car-charging stations by 2010, when the Chevy Volt is due to be produced.

The challenges include providing an affordable, reliable electricity source that's weather-proof and child-proof at locations such as public garages, curbside meters, and workplace parking lots.

Another aim is to prevent utilities from being overwhelmed during peak hours when the grid is already challenged. Electric cars can be charged at night when electrical rates and demand are low, but that's not feasible for drivers either traveling away from a home outlet or living where a personal plug-in isn't available.

A national car-charging infrastructure will be far from being established by the time consumers can take the Volt for a 40-mile spin on a full charge of its lithium-ion battery.

However, Jonathan Lauckner, GM's vice president of global program management, said that involvement by big automakers will accelerate the spread of greener transportation, leading to a meaningful reduction of carbon emissions and dependence on foreign oil.

"Thousands of cars is a fail," he said at a dinner before the Plug-In 2008 conference, which is taking place here Tuesday through Thursday. "We need tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands over a number of years."

Lauckner said he hopes another 50 to 70 of the approximately 3,000 U.S. utilities will join the partnership by year's end.

"What's happening is the convergence of the energy and transportation industries," said Sherry Boschert, former president of the San Francisco Electric Vehicle Association and author of a 2006 book about plug-in hybrids.

Many electric car advocates have accused Detroit, at best, of lagging and, at worst, of killing progress to protect profits while lauding innovations in green transportation by Silicon Valley start-ups such as Tesla.

San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, meanwhile, hopes for his city to become a hub for electric cars. He has discussed partnering with Project Better Place, which is working toward electric-car infrastructure in Israel, Denmark, and Portugal.

Newsom's office on Monday invited companies to submit ideas by September 19 for charging infrastructure for plug-in hybrids and full-battery vehicles. The city next will seek requests for proposals.

"We will be the first bidder," said Richard Lowenthal, CEO of Coulomb Technologies, which is designing charging stations for cars. The company launched a two-year demonstration contract on Monday with the city of San Jose.