Major automakers zipping electric cars into showrooms soon

By Jerry Hirsch and Tiffany Hsu
Saturday, November 27, 2010; 8:24 PM

LOS ANGELES - Stalled for nearly a century, electric cars are poised to enter a new era when the first of a new generation of vehicles reaches dealer showrooms next month.

Every major automaker plans some sort of electric or plug-in hybrid offering over the next several years, a wave of competing technologies reminiscent of the beginning of the automobile age.

General Motors this month will start shipping its Chevrolet Volt, which uses a gas engine to generate electricity when the batteries run out. It will be available for sale in California in December. By year's end, Nissan Motor will launch its Leaf, which is powered only by batteries. Ford will come out with an all-electric version of its Focus compact car next year.

"Electric vehicles are finally real and not an R&D project," said Mark Sogomian, a partner at Ernst & Young.

Many of the new-generation electric vehicles are on display at the Los Angeles Auto Show, which runs through Sunday. Other alternative-fuel vehicles, such as Honda's hydrogen-powered FCX Clarity, also are being showcased.

This influx of new-technology cars comes after a century of reliance on gasoline combustion engine vehicles.

More than a century ago, cars ran on all kinds of fuels and strange mechanisms: wind-up cars on giant springs, Peugeots burning something similar to mothballs, and vehicles on steam, electricity and a variety of petroleum products.

Fossil fuels eventually won that race because gasoline was stuffed with energy and was convenient to transport and store.

Still, everyone from garage tinkerers to automakers has toyed with electric cars in recent decades, particularly during times of high gas prices. But those vehicles never caught on because battery technology limited the range of the cars and oil prices always receded, making electric cars comparatively too expensive.

Now, improvements in battery technology, pollution concerns and fears of soaring gas prices have given new impetus to alternative-fuel vehicles.

In the coming months, consumers will have to start doing more than just deciding whether they want a sedan or a sport-utility vehicle.

They will have to consider for the first time how they want their new car powered, and that will create new questions: What's less expensive per mile - gasoline or electricity? How far can I go on a charge? How much more will it cost me to purchase a green car?

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