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Car Makers Slow to Adopt New Battery

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If you've been thinking about buying a hybrid vehicle as another way to help the environment or your pocketbook, 2010 might be your year. Even though, auto makers are seeing tough times, General Motors and Toyota have been battling to bring about a revolution in automobile manufacturing. For the Environment Report, Dustin Dwyer has the story.

Lithium ion sounds like a complicated term. And you don't necessarily need to know what it means. But it might help to know that you already use lithium ion batteries every day:

HALL: It's being used now in video cameras, personal phones, it's in iPods, it's in a lot of small electronics and in, of course, laptop computers.

That's Jim Hall. He's a consultant to the auto industry. His company is called 2953 Analytics. Hall's had some experience working on battery powered cars. He says lithium ion batteries are attractive because they can store a lot more power than the batteries in today's hybrid vehicles, and Hall says in the race to get lithium ion batteries into cars, there are two leading companies: General Motors and Toyota.

They have different approaches to getting the batteries ready, but they both depend on contractors outside the company to figure out the complicated chemistry. Hall says the problem is right now, they need a breakthrough:

HALL: And the breakthrough could come from an entirely different source. It could be from another company that neither company is dealing with. It could. That's the thing with breakthroughs. You can't predict how and when they happen.

Battery engineers have already invented ways to make lithium ion work in small things like cell phones, laptops and power drills. But it's not as easy to make the batteries work for something big, like a car.

Hall says one problem is cost. Lithium ion batteries are expensive. Another problem is heat. The more energy you store in a lithium ion battery, the better the chances that the battery could become unstable. If it becomes too hot, the battery could explode. That's already been a problem in some laptops.

Bob Lutz is the Vice Chairman of General Motors. He says his company has already solved the heat problem with lithium ion batteries by using a different chemistry than what's in laptops:

LUTZ: We've cycled 'em in hot rooms, maximum discharge rate, and cut out the cooling system to simulate a cooling system failure in the car, and we've had a temperature rise of maybe eight degrees centigrade, I mean, just not enough to worry about.

GM expects to put the batteries in test cars and start running them on roads late this spring. The goal is a lithium ion powered hybrid car named the Chevy Volt. It will go forty miles on battery power alone, before a gas engine has to kick in. Lutz says he has no doubt that the Volt will be ready to go by mid-2010, but officially, GM has not set a production date.

Toyota says it's also shooting to have the technology ready by 2010. But no other automaker will even mention a date for lithium ion batteries. Not Ford. Not Honda. Not Chrysler. Chrysler President Tom Lasorda says there's a reason for that:

LASORDA: When you're trying to predict when a technology is going to be ready for mass market, it's very tough. Because you don't know what the surprises might be.

In the next few years, you can expect auto executives to make a lot of references to lithium ion batteries. And basically anyone you talk to in the industry says these batteries are no doubt, the next big thing that will save you gas.

The question is when. When will lithium ion batteries actually be in your car? Maybe 2010. Maybe a lot later. No one can really say for sure.

For the Environment Report, I'm Dustin Dwyer.

Music Button: Shawn Lee & Clutchy Hopkins, “Across the Pond”, from the CD Clutch of the Tiger (Ubiquity Records)

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