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Does GM now mean 'green motors'?

The Detroit stalwart is recharging itself with the Chevy Volt and other projects, but don't go looking for an all-electric car. Photos: GM's alternative-energy cars

LOS ANGELES--General Motors is already developing a slew of cars that will run on alternative fuels such as electricity, hydrogen, or green liquids like ethanol. But don't count on an all-electric car anytime soon from the auto giant.

It's the one green transportation idea that the company isn't dedicating a lot of time to, Dave Barthmuss, GM's group general manager for environment and energy communications, said during a break at the Hollywood Goes Green conference that took place here this week. GM brought a prototype of its Chevy Volt and the Equinox, a hydrogen-powered SUV, to the conference.

Why not go all the way, with a fully electric vehicle? In a word, batteries. Batteries cost a lot, weigh quite a bit, and can't take a car nearly as far as a combination of gas and electric power, or even a full tank of gas. Battery capacity and endurance are improving, but at an incremental pace. Even bringing down the price and boosting the performance of batteries to manufacture plug-in hybrids and other gas-electric combo cars remains problematic.

"It is the biggest challenge we have with this car. We're working at the cell level, the pack level," said Andrew Farah, vehicle chief engineer of E-flex Systems, the GM group developing the Volt.

The Volt runs on batteries, but it contains a gas motor that recharges the battery after 40 miles. With the gas recharger and a full tank of gas, the car has a range of 640 miles. The batteries also can get recharged by plugging the car into the wall at night. Mileage should be in the triple digit range, or about 100 miles per gallon. People who don't drive more than 40 miles a day will barely consume gas. Thus, the Volt will outdo many plug-in hybrids on mileage, Farah said.

The goal is to get the car to commercial production by 2010, he said. Ideally, the price will be in the $30,000 range. By contrast, all-electric cars coming to market will have a range of 120 to 250 miles and most will cost between $50,000 and $100,000.

Currently, GM is testing batteries from A123 Systems, a start-up in Massachusetts, and Compact Power, part of the LG conglomerate. Some recent prototypes just arrived at GM, Farah said.

All-electric and partly electric cars are tough to design as well, he said.

"Everyone thinks the battery is an electrochemical problem. Wrong," he said. "The whole idea is to integrate it (into the design). You don't want to have a battery with some wheels."

In the case of the Volt, one of the design tweaks revolves around putting the battery pack in the floor of the car. It runs between the two front seats and, therefore, doesn't take up luggage room.

Many others have echoed Farah's points about the pace of battery science. For instance, Mike Taylor, vice president of finance at Tesla Motors, pointed out last week that the energy density for lithium-ion batteries doubles about every 10 years while the price drops by more than 70 percent. (He tracked it from 1990 to 2000 and from 1995 to 2005 and found the same thing.) Thus, the technology improves, but it's not on a torrid Moore's Law-like pace.

Although the Volt will likely look a lot different when it hits the market, the prototype is kind of cool looking. It's fairly roomy. The only complaint at the conference came from TV star Larry Hagman, who didn't like the transparent plastic roof. "You will fry in California," Hagman said.

GM will work on ways to tint it, Farah told him.

Test-driving the Equinox
GM wouldn't let me drive the Volt. The prototype, which costs a few million dollars, is only driven to and from the delivery truck that brings it to event. The company, however, did let me take out the .

Like other hydrogen cars and electric cars, the pickup on the Equinox is fairly impressive. I managed to pop it from zero to over 40 in a few seconds. (We drove on crowded Hollywood Boulevard so I never got it up to freeway speeds.) The silence is great, too. The engine does not make much noise, other than a low-grade whooshing sound. A video screen between the front and passenger seats provides an explanation of how hydrogen gets converted into electricity by the fuel cell.

GM recently kicked off a program called Project Driveway under which 100 consumers will get Equinoxes to drive. The tests, which will take place in California, Washington, Washington D.C., and New York, will largely seek to find how hydrogen cars mix with the average's person's driving.

The company also is trying to ensure that the people testing the cars will live near those rare hydrogen filling stations.

In addition, there will be a big push for hybrids and plug-in hybrids, GM executives said. Over the next four years, GM will release 16 hybrids into the market.

Meanwhile, in ethanol, GM will continue to put out flex fuel vehicles that can drive on E85, or a blend of fuel that is 85 percent ethanol. The company has already sold 2.5 million flex fuel cars, and by 2012, roughly half the cars coming out of its factories will be flex fuel cars.

A chief problem with flex fuel cars, however, is the lack of stations that pump E85. Only about 1 percent of stations in the U.S. sell the stuff. To this end, GM will work with stations by providing them with advertising dollars or other promotional materials.

Most of these alternative energy ideas will first appear in the Chevy line, said Susan Docherty, western region general manager for GM, rather than the more expensive brands like Cadillac. The idea is to penetrate the market more rapidly.

There may be a historical element to GM's lack of interest in all-electric cars. The company came out with the EV1, an all-electric vehicle, in the late 1990s. The car developed a small, but rabid, following. GM, however, canceled the leases and took all the cars back a few years later. Some have theorized that GM removed the car from the market to protect its dealer base and oil companies. GM and other automakers (along with several battery executives) have said the withdrawal came because sales were slow.

Either way, it wasn't a public relations high point for GM.

And, by the way, the leases were never huge in number. GM leased only about 800 of the cars over a four-year period, GM's Barthmuss said.