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Stepping away from gas pumps

Almost 40 years after the Arab oil embargo that nearly brought this country to a standstill, and following a week in which prices at the gas pump surged 20 cents or more despite a world petroleum glut, it appears steps are finally being taken to loosen the stranglehold of foreign suppliers.

While it’s pathetic that it took last year’s $4-plus per gallon gas prices and U.S. automobile manufacturers facing bankruptcy (or worse) to finally get attention focused on the need for alternative power vehicles, the industry may at last be headed, however tentatively, down that road, with 2010 the year when these new models begin hitting showrooms.

New electric and electric/gasoline hybrid models now in development promise to offer buyers vehicles that either use no gasoline, or much less gasoline, with mileage that far surpasses anything now available. And these aren’t small, weird-shaped vehicles that are little more than glorified golf carts or modified motorcycles — they’re comparable to conventional cars in terms of passenger room/comfort. (Some of the all-electric models offer astounding acceleration, zero to 60 mph in 6 seconds or so, because power is directly transmitted to the drive train.)

General Motors, now on government life support, is in intensive final testing of its Chevrolet Volt, which is supposed to be in dealer showrooms by November 2010. A high tech lithium ion battery pack is said to deliver a 40-mile driving range, more than the average daily commute, on electric power alone. Beyond that, a small gasoline engine kicks in to charge the batteries and keep the car running.

GM says the miles per gallon equivalent will be around 100. Expected cost: $35,000 to $40,000, but there will be a $7,500 federal electric car credit to help ease sticker shock.

Ford, though not in the government bailout program (only because it had borrowed a boatload of money before the economy tanked), hasn’t been setting the woods afire sales-wise, and is pinning part of its survival hopes on hybrid and electric models.

It is spending $550 million revamping a Michigan plant that once made gas-guzzling Expedition and Navigator SUVs, so it can produce an all-electric Ford Focus in 2011. Unlike the Volt, Focus won’t have a supplemental gasoline engine, but will have a driving range of 100 miles before needing to recharge batteries.

Although it remains to be seen whether Chrysler, the weaker of the Big Three auto companies, will survive its financial difficulties, it apparently is also well into the process of bringing electric and electric/gasoline hybrid vehicles to market, with an all-electric 120 mph, 200-mile range, Dodge sports car scheduled in 2010. Other products planned in that time period include Jeep Wrangler and Town and Country plug-in hybrids touted to provide a 40-mile range on electric power alone and 400 miles on 8 to 10 gallons of gasoline.

Nissan is planning a 100-mile range all-electric vehicle for fleets in 2010 and retail buyers in 2012, with a price of around $20,000 after the federal credit.

Honda, Toyota, Mitsubishi, and others, have all-electric and advanced hybrids coming down the pike, and China and India are gearing up to crank out millions of electric cars.

Consumer acceptance for these new vehicles is likely to be slow until prices come down and reliability and serviceability become better known.

It may well take another decade, but this could finally be the turning point in starting to meaningfully loosen the noose of imported oil.


TAGS: Management
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