Los Angeles Auto Show Provides Glimpse into the Future of Electric-Vehicles

Automakers are showcasing their plug-in electric hybrids at the L.A. Auto show, which runs through December 13. Along with prototypes, many of the new hybrids are within a short year or so from mass production.

The Chevy Volt from General Motors has taken a starring role at the show, and Irvine, California’s Fisker Automotive is debuting its Karma, an $88K luxury plug-in hybrid vehicle.

Bob Lutz, product executive for GM, delivered a keynote speech at the show Wednesday, and spent quite a bit of time praising the Volt when he wasn’t busy answering questions about the departure of Fritz Henderson. Referring to a 2006 documentary film about the end of GM’s electric car program in 1999, he stated, “People continue to think of GM as the company that ‘killed the electric car.’ The electric car is far from dead at GM.”

The Audi A3 TDI won Green Car of the Year with its clean diesel technology, however the plug-in hybrids are thought to be the future of alternative fuel technology.

The Chevy Volt has a range of roughly 40 miles before switching from electric to gasoline power, but technology has advanced to the point that 100 miles on a charge may be possible in the near future. This would alleviate the “range anxiety” phenomena in which drivers fear being stranded with a dead battery and no charging station in sight.

Much has to happen, however, in order to make the plug-in hybrid a reality for mass use. Home and public charging stations and rate plans must be put in place. Los Angeles’ Department of Water and Power is planning to subsidize thousands of home chargers for the new vehicles and will offer lower rates for off-peak battery charging between 6 p.m. to 2 a.m.

Many say that electric vehicles will be relegated to the second-car role, only being used for short trips and commuting. Others believe the highways will be filled with EVs in the future. Both camps agree that consumer attitudes and government legislation will play a huge role in how popular EVs actually become.

Lutz said that raising fuel taxes to create the margin needed between the cost of running a gasoline powered vehicle versus an electric vehicle would give EVs a greater chance of widespread success. “People are not going to pay tens of thousands of dollars more in order to save a couple of hundred dollars a year on gasoline,” he said.

Felix Kramer, who founded the California Cars Initiative to promote plug-in EVs, has a different perspective. “An electric mile costs 2 to 3 cents, compared to 8 to 20 cents for a gasoline mile. Obviously it helps to have much higher gas prices, but I’ve never met a Prius owner who’s done the payback calculations.”

Kramer feels a better tactic would be government incentives for consumers who purchase EVs. The tax credit now available through the stimulus package (up to $7,500 for buyers of the first 200,000 vehicles from each manufacturer) will do a better job of driving interest toward the plug-in hybrids. The Obama administration’s current goal is one million plug-in hybrids on U.S. roads by 2015.

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