GE jumps on plug-in bandwagon

Company teams with Chrysler to show new battery technology

WASHINGTON — Plug-in hybrid vehicles were the turf of geeky do-it-yourselfers just a few years ago. Now, General Electric wants in on the action.

GE is teaming with Chrysler LLC to demonstrate technology called a dual-battery energy storage system. GE executives suggest they are interested in supplying plug-in hybrid components to automakers.

'It's huge'

"It's huge" news, says Felix Kramer, an early advocate of plug-in hybrids. Kramer founded the California Cars Initiative, a group that in 2004 showed the feasibility of plug-in technology by beefing up batteries in a Toyota Prius.

GE "is a missing player who is now showing up," Kramer says.

GE's Vlatko Vlatkovic noted his company has developed a hybrid railroad locomotive, which he called a "6,000-horsepower Prius on rails."

GE also is working on a heavy-duty off-highway hybrid truck, said Vlatkovic, global technology leader of electronics and energy conversion at GE Global Research.

"A lot of these technologies are really synergistic to what the automotives need," Vlatkovic told Automotive News.

A GE spokesman said the dual-battery technology that GE and Chrysler are working on would combine several battery chemistries in a single unit. The technology aims to meet a range of driving demands, the spokesman said.

For GE, the automotive sector is "a new space that we are convinced will grow," Vlatkovic said. The company can offer expertise in batteries and drivetrain and power electronic controls, he added.

Chrysler CEO Bob Nardelli is a former GE executive.

High hopes

A plug-in hybrid uses a more robust battery pack than a traditional gasoline-electric hybrid. With recharging from electrical outlets, a plug-in is designed to operate much longer on electric-only power than other hybrids.

Proponents say an all-electric range of 40 miles would satisfy the daily needs of most drivers. Plug-ins could provide the equivalent of 100 mpg or more, dramatically cutting petroleum demand, advocates suggest.

But Toyota executive Bill Reinert warned that just as some consumers have been disappointed by the actual mileage of regular hybrids, plug-ins may not live up to such lofty expectations.

Reinert is national manager of the advanced technology group for Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc. He spoke at last week's plug-in conference, organized by the Brookings Institution think tank and Google.com.

Tapping taxpayers

Other auto executives at the conference argued for a bigger government role.

Mark Fields, Ford Motor Co.'s president of the Americas, said that making widespread use of plug-ins a reality will require "significant" federal spending.

Troy Clarke, president of General Motors North America, said government should support more advanced battery r&d and domestic battery production. It also should provide "incentives for consumers to adopt these exciting new technologies in a big way," he said.

Climate change legislation is a possible source of revenue, industry lobbyists told Automotive News. The sale of greenhouse gas emissions permits to utilities and other businesses could yield tens of billions of dollars, they said. Congress is expected to consider climate change measures next year.

At last week's conference, the Department of Energy announced a modest $30 million in grants for plug-in hybrid technology. The main recipients are GM, Ford and GE. Each has project partners, including Chrysler with GE.

GM, Ford and Toyota are edging toward introduction of plug-in hybrids, perhaps as soon as 2010. Plug-in advocate Kramer says the tie with GE appears to give Chrysler a competitive boost.

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