Electric Car Revolution Remains a Distant Prospect

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Krebs believes an electric car will have to be able to reliably travel more than 100 kilometers (62 miles) even under unfavorable conditions, such as rain, cold weather or extreme heat. To do so, it would have to have at least 25 kilowatt hours of power. That would require a battery that weighs somewhere in the range of 250 kilograms and costs €10,000 -- in other words, almost as much as a complete small car with a conventional drive system.

Developers currently predict that, over the next decade, battery capacity will double while production costs will be halved. But, even so, the electric car would be nowhere near as inexpensive and flexible as a conventional car.

"In the foreseeable future," Krebs says, "you can forget about electric drives for long-distance use."

Possible Ways Forward Still, an entirely new era could begin if battery manufacturers try their luck with a new combination of lithium and air. Doing so would allow energy-storage devices to embrace one of the advantages of traditional combustion engines: The batteries would get the oxygen they need out of the atmosphere, thereby cutting down on the vehicle's weight. Researchers believe it's possible to reduce energy density to one kilowatt hour per kilogram. If batteries reached this efficiency level but weighed the same as they do now, the range of the electric car would climb to 1,000 kilometers, thereby meeting the prerequisite for an electric car suited for traveling long distances.

However, this technology is still in the research phase. Indeed, it might not be until well past 2020, if ever, that these kinds of batteries are sufficiently reliable and long-lasting to be suitable for use in cars. Until then, a fully satisfying car powered solely by electricity will remain little more than a dream.

One compromise solution that seems plausible is hybrid drives, in other words, crossbreeds that have both types of drive systems. Together with General Motors, its parent company, Opel has developed the most spectacular example of this species so far. The Opel Ampera, which will become available on the European market this autumn, can travel roughly 60 kilometers (37 miles) on battery power. The driver doesn't need to worry about the batteries running down because the gasoline engine takes over when the car runs out of electricity.

The logic behind this concept is convincing: The Ampera can handle most everyday journeys with electric power while retaining the autonomy of a full-fledged car. But there might be one stumbling block: the price tag. The car will cost €42,900 ($58,500), quite a lot for an Opel.

Renault Fails to Live Up to Its Own Hype

The principle will be imitated by the more prestigious car brands. Many carmakers -- including Daimler, BMW and Audi -- already have comparable vehicles under development and expressed much respect for Opel's advances.

At the same time, the entire sector is puzzled by the offensive of the Renault-Nissan alliance. In early 2008, CEO Carlos Ghosn announced that the alliance would become the market leader in electric autos and begin to "mass-market" them in 2011.

This was followed by all sorts of baffling events. Ghosn fired several leading executives based on suspicions of industrial espionage that later proved unfounded. Then there was a big dispute over a battery plant that was supposed to be built in the French town of Flins but now won't be able to start production until 2014 at the earliest, two years behind schedule.

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