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Automakers still feel electricity in their future

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Hybrids and all-electric vehicles have had a rough go the past year, despite hype and hope surrounding them. Still, as the 24th annual Detroit auto show reveals, automakers are continuing to make big bets on the market.

One company that exemplifies the uncertainty ahead is Ford. On Monday, the firm announced that it was pulling the plug on its ­7-year-old gas-electric Escape sport-utility vehicle, which has seen sales plunge of late. But Ford also revealed that it was doubling down on the future of electric vehicles, announcing three new versions of its top-selling Fusion family car, including both gas-electric and plug-in hybrid models.

The U.S. hybrid market made up just 2.2 percent of auto sales in 2011, down from 2.4 percent in 2010. And more-advanced plug-in cars, such as the Nissan Leaf and the Chevrolet Volt, sold only 17,345 units last year, missing expectations.

Placed in perspective, though, those modest sales aren’t too apocalyptic. Randy Essex and Ben Holland of the Rocky Mountain Institute observe that when the first gas-electric hybrid models rolled out in 2000, the Honda Insight and Toyota Prius had sales of just 9,350. Those figures looked anemic at the time, too. But the technology eventually caught on and more than 2 million hybrids have been sold in the United States since then.

If that’s any prologue, it could bode well for the future of electric vehicles. Ford, for one, expects 10 percent of its sales to be either plug-ins or hybrids by 2020. And the latest round of fuel-economy standards, under which carmakers have to get their fleet averages up to 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025, should provide yet more incentives to go electric.

The big unknown, however, is what types of electric vehicles will catch on. Ford decided on creating different versions of the Fusion, and the company is betting that gas-electric hybrids will remain the dominant preference for the time being.

“The majority of people near-term are going to hybrids,” Ford chief executive Alan R. Mulally said at a news conference Monday. “They’re just so flexible.”

Pure electric vehicles like the Nissan Leaf still face hurdles. There’s the phenomenon of “range anxiety,” in which would-be buyers of plug-in electric cars fret that their batteries will run out of juice and leave them stranded. The Chevy Volt includes a gas-powered backup engine in order to allay this fear, but that hiked the car’s price tag up to a hefty $39,145. (Buyers can, however, qualify for a $7,500 federal tax credit.)

Electric cars also have endured panicky headlines over safety of late, after three Volt batteries caught fire in crash tests.

As with any fledgling technology, this sort of attention may have been inevitable. General Motors has said it has since resolved the Volt’s issues by adding new protections around the battery, and a government probe into the matter is winding down.

Some analysts noted that the Volt’s batteries caught fire days or weeks after extreme crash testing in the laboratory, and even then the fires only broke out because post-crash procedures weren’t followed.

MSNBC auto analyst Dan Carney snarked, “The lesson here is to get out of a crashed car within a few days, and be sure to turn off the lights when exiting.”

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