GM Pledges to Make Plug-In Hybrid Vehicle

General Motors North America President Troy Clarke introduces the 2008 GMC Yukon Hybrid at the Los Angeles Auto Show.
General Motors North America President Troy Clarke introduces the 2008 GMC Yukon Hybrid at the Los Angeles Auto Show. (General Motors Via Bloomberg News)
By Sholnn Freeman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 30, 2006

General Motors yesterday became the first automaker to announce plans to build a plug-in hybrid vehicle, improving the chances that cars of the future will go much farther on a gallon of gas.

Plug-in gas-electric hybrids would significantly expand gas mileage through the use of advanced batteries that would provide greater range under electric power than current models. The cars would rely much less on conventional engines, reducing gasoline consumption and pollution.

GM chairman and chief executive G. Richard Wagoner Jr. made the announcement at the Los Angeles Auto Show but, citing technical obstacles, didn't say when the new vehicle would go on sale. Wagoner said it will take several years for GM to create a plug-in hybrid that would meet performance standards. He acknowledged that affordable battery technology doesn't exist yet. Toyota and Ford also are studying the technology.

GM's initiative reflects a belated attempt to win an image as a "green" car company and to catch up with the alternative-fuel efforts of Toyota, the world's leader in hybrid vehicles with its popular gas-electric Prius. Toyota is far ahead of U.S. automakers in creating software, electrical systems and other high-tech parts that the company says could form the basis of plug-in technology. "We want it as much as anybody else, but there are limits right now in terms of technology. It's not lack of desire. It's lack of science," James E. Press, Toyota's U.S. chief executive, said yesterday in Washington.

Toyota and Honda have benefited from their early push into hybrids, while GM was promoting the Hummers and other large sport-utility vehicles that powered its sales in the 1990s.

After largely ignoring electric alternatives, U.S. officials are now putting their weight behind plug-ins. Members of Congress have flocked to ride-and-drive events featuring plug-in prototypes.

President Bush mentioned the technology in his State of the Union address this year. He also visited a battery plant in the Midwest. Next year, administration officials say, Bush plans to find $14 million in the budget to study plug-ins.

Local government leaders also support the technology, and electric utility companies, seeing opportunity to sell electricity as a transportation fuel, are enthusiastic.

"These aren't things that are so distant or beyond the horizon that we cannot even touch them," Alexander Karsner, an assistant secretary of energy, said yesterday. He said there were no boogeymen in the administration or in Detroit fighting the technology. "This isn't a David and Goliath play. This is a transformation of the American automobile industry that is inevitable," he said.

Gas-electric hybrids have both internal combustion engines and electric motors. Depending on driving conditions, the cars switch between the two. Gas mileage can be more than 40 miles per gallon.

Plug-ins would have larger, more sophisticated batteries that could store significantly more energy. As envisioned, the vehicles could go 20 to 40 miles on electric power alone. To recharge, the cars would be plugged into garage outlets.

Roland Hwang, senior policy analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said he wondered whether GM's announcement was "smoke and mirrors" or the real deal.

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