- The Washington Times - Friday, February 27, 2009

So many automakers are talking about electric cars and plug-in hybrids one could be forgiven for thinking she had fallen asleep like Rip Van Winkle - missed the years of the necessary infrastructure being put in place - and awoke to an electrified future.

At a recent major auto show I attended, there were more announcements of gas-electric hybrids and hybrids to come. Honda introduced its all-new 2010 Honda Insight hybrid vehicle. Toyota introduced its third-generation 2010 Prius hybrid. Toyota says the new Prius will get a fuel economy of 50 miles per gallon city and highway combined, up from the current 46 mpg. The automaker also gave us a peek at the new Lexus hybrid sedan, the 2010 HS 250h.

BMW showed 7 Series and X6 hybrid concepts and said both will be sold in the U.S. by the end of this year. Mercedes plans a gas-electric hybrid for each of its major models, starting with the S400 hybrid this summer. And Audi said it will offer a hybrid version of its Q5 crossover in late 2010.

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Ford’s 2010 Fusion hybrid is scheduled to go on sale in early spring and is expected to get up to 41 mpg in the city - 8 mpg better than the Toyota Camry Hybrid.

All of these announcements, however, were overshadowed by the emphasis on “plug-in hybrids,” as well as full-electric vehicles.

Plug-in hybrid means the batteries can be recharged by, yes, plugging in the vehicle. The idea is to extend the range beyond that of a regular hybrid. Electric is just that - an electric motor powered by batteries that must be recharged.

Ford announced plans to bring pure electric-battery-powered vehicles, as well as plug-in hybrids, to market. They include a new electric commercial van in 2010; a new lithium ion battery-powered electric small car in 2011 (with a range of up to 100 miles on a single charge without using any gas); and next-generation hybrids, including a plug-in version in 2012.

Toyota announced that low-volume sales of its electric vehicle, which will be powered by a lithium ion battery, will begin in 2012.

General Motors showed its Cadillac Converj concept car. It will use the same lithium ion battery technology as the 2010 Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid, which will be available in November of 2010 for somewhere around $40,000.

The battery pack drives the vehicle electrically for up to 40 miles and then switches to an engine-generator that creates electricity. GM has already announced a supplier for its lithium ion batteries and just outlined a plan to help communities get ready for plug-ins.

Mercedes-Benz gave us a glimpse of its Concept BlueZERO, a five-seater compact car with a trunk as big as a full-size sedan. It is meant to show that electric vehicles can be practical and functional. Mercedes says it will bring out a pure electric vehicle in 2010 - and this summer will begin to build its first fuel-cell vehicles in low volumes.

The automaker Smart, who brought us the fortwo microcar, will soon be bringing an electric-powered fortwo model, with a range of between 60 and 70 miles. It will come to the U.S. in 2010 in small numbers and to just a few cities.

Chrysler LLC showed five concept vehicles with some form of electric drive, all with lithium ion batteries. Unlike GM, Chrysler has not announced a deal with a battery supplier. All the automaker is saying is that one of the five vehicles will go into production late in 2010 with three more planned for 2013.

The Chrysler 200 EV concept car can travel 40 miles on battery power. After that a small gas engine and generator produce electricity that extends the range to 400 miles on 8 gallons of gas, making it a 50-mpg vehicle.

MINI showed its MINI E with a range of 156 miles that can be fully recharged in fewer than three hours. MINI will be testing its small fleet of fully electric vehicles in Los Angeles and New York City. I wonder though: How would my mother-in-law recharge one from the 33rd floor of her New York City apartment? Did I sleep through infrastructure upgrades?

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