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Auto Industry Faces Challenge in Mass-Producing Electric Cars

As petrol prices continue to hit the roof, the world's major car makers are rushing ahead with plans to produce huge numbers of zero-emission electric vehicles at affordable prices.

Mercedes factory in Bremen

Some see electric cars as the future, while others say petrol will be around for a while

Toyota, General Motors and Mercedes all recently announced that an electric car will be in the showroom within the next two years. Toyota appears to be a nose ahead of its competitors after CEO Katsuaki Watanabe recently announced at a press conference in Tokyo that the car industry had no choice but to move away from fossil-burning fuels.

"Without focusing on measures to address global warming and energy issues, there can be no future for our car business," he said. "Our view is that oil production will peak in the near future. We need to develop power trains for alternative energy sources."

Toyota has assigned a group of 50 research engineers to develop a more powerful battery for the hybrid and electric car. The lithium-ion battery currently being tested has itself been a revolution in extending the range of the electric car. Toyota has announced that it will offer hybrid versions of all its models in the next 10 to 20 years. A plug-in hybrid will go on sale in 2010.

Toyota's plans come after General Motors CEO Rick Wagoner announced that its Chevrolet Volt electric car will go on sale in 2010 at a price of under $30,000 (19,000 euros) after the concern had to concede huge losses on the SUV (Sports Utility Vehicle) and pickup truck market with customers turning to smaller and more economical cars in the US.

German carmakers drive double track

The German car makers Mercedes Benz, BMW and Volkswagen are following a dual strategy. Both are fine-tuning the technology of the petrol and diesel engine while at the same time working on plug-in electric cars.

Mercedes has announced an electric drive version of the Smart minicar powered by lithium-ion batteries for 2012. Some 100 electric Smarts are currently being tested as fleet cars in London.

At the same time it has announced small-scale production of a fuel-cell version of the B-Class in 2010. Mercedes claims that the next generation fuel cell drive is capable of cold-start at temperatures below minus 25 degrees Celsius (minus 13 degrees Fahrenheit) and has a significantly higher range of 400 kilometers (249 miles).

The B-Class F-Cell is to sell at a price similar to the petrol model with a price range of between 21,800 and 28,000 euros.

Electric plugs-ins are the future, says VW chief

VW CEO Martin Winterkorn recently told Germany's mass-circulation Bild tabloid: "There is no way past diesel and petrol cars over the next few years but the future belongs to the plug-in electric car."

Fuel consumption of new Volkswagens, BMWs and Audis has been reduced by between 10 and 15 percent with weight-reduction measures, engine management systems and start-stop technology. The Blue Motion diesels have emission figures similar to petrol cars combined with hybrid technology.

The VW Polo Blue Motion for instance has a carbon dioxide emission figure of only 99 grams per kilometer. Winterkorn says he wants to bring fuel consumption of the Golf down to between three and four liters per 100 kilometers (58 to 78 miles per gallon).

Nissan meanwhile is starting a global offensive for an electric car market. It has announced that it will build a range of electric cars in the "near future." Nissan, owned by Renault, is reportedly planning a $1 billion budget on the electric car segment with an electric car planned for California in 2010 with a range of more than 100 kilometers.

Electric cars require new infrastructure

BMW's former head of research Burkhard Goeschel does not see the end of the combustion engine just yet although there will be more electric vehicles on the road soon.

Goeschel dampened the euphoria over electric cars. "The infra-structure for loading the energy is an issue that will have to be addressed. It starts with small things like an electric plug in the underground parking garage."

San Francisco meanwhile could move ahead to become one of the world's first cities with electric cars on the road in huge numbers. It is currently working on plans for building a network of charging and battery-exchange stations throughout the city.

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