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Better Batteries Could Make Electric Cars Attractive

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Better Batteries Could Make Electric Cars Attractive

Technology

Better Batteries Could Make Electric Cars Attractive

Better Batteries Could Make Electric Cars Attractive

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The next step in hybrids is the electric car. It would be cheaper to drive than a car fueled by gasoline. But the problem is that battery technology hasn't developed to outperform gasoline. Joe White, the Detroit bureau chief for The Wall Street Journal, talks with John Ydstie.

JOHN YDSTIE, host:

Hybrid cars seemed to be going mainstream. They made up about three percent of total vehicle sales in the first half of the year.

What about the next step, the plug-in electric car? We don't hear so much about that. That's probably because there aren't any big-named, plug-in hybrid vehicles on the market yet. The operative word is yet.

Joe White, the Detroit bureau chief for The Wall Street Journal, recently drove one of those new cars to work.

Mr. JOE WHITE (Detroit Bureau Chief, The Wall Street Journal): I drove a Toyota Prius that had been modified by the addition in the back, in the place where the spare tires should be, of a lithium-ion battery pack that basically turned the car into what's called a plug-in hybrid. And what you do is you put a plug in the back bumper of the car and plug it into your house - your garage, in my case. In the morning, you unplug it and you take off, and you're in all-electric mode for the first 40 miles or so of your commute.

YDSTIE: So you have to get a different battery. That's not the same kind of battery in a regular Prius, right?

Mr. WHITE: No, it's not. And that's one of the big issues. I mean, one of the reasons why we don't have all-electric cars running around - and this goes back more than a century - is that battery technology simply hasn't evolved to the point where it can outperform and out-cheap gasoline in the internal combustion engine. What's happening now is that a bunch of different companies, large and small, are trying to perfect a new kind of battery technology - lithium-ion - that will provide or - the kind of range and performance and reliability that you need to have a mass-market electric vehicle. Trouble is they're just not there yet with the technology.

YDSTIE: Right. This lithium-ion battery is similar to those exploding batteries in laptops, right?

Mr. WHITE: Yeah, that's a big problem for the companies that want to start selling these. They - one of the first things they're going to have to do is try to convince people that their lithium-ion battery isn't like those lithium-ion batteries.

YDSTIE: Mm-hmm. Well, technical issues aside, what was it like driving this plug-in electric?

MR. WHITE: Well, you know, my initial reaction, you know, was, I think, what a lot of people's reaction would be, which is, wow. Where can I get one of these? You know, you're driving along. You know that because there's a gasoline engine up front, once the batteries run out of juice, you're not going to get stranded on the highway.

The Prius has a display that shows you what your mileage is on a running basis, and this one was sort of redlined at 99.9 miles to the gallon. You know, all of this is extraordinarily exciting. Then you sort of stop the car and sober up, so to speak, and you realize the battery pack cost is going to cost $10,000, at least initially. On the other hand, the electricity would probably be cheaper than gasoline per mile driven. The key to this is expensive gasoline. Now, all of a sudden, the energy and the effort to make an electric car economical is worth it.

YDSTIE: Isn't there an argument that an electric car just isn't a practical vehicle? I mean, there are mileage constraints on it. You have to replace the batteries, as I understand, relatively frequently?

Mr. WHITE: Absolutely. I - the problem with electric cars is that you really have to rethink why you have a car. One of the reasons why electric cars died in the early years of the 20th century is that people - Americans went from just running around town because there were no roads to saying, hey, I can drive city to city. Certainly by the 1950s, that was the case. So someone has to say, yup, it's okay for me to have my city car that runs on electricity. But when I got to go up to the mountains or have to take a long road trip over the river and through the woods, then maybe I use my hybrid car with gasoline and electricity in order to have the range to do that.

YDSTIE: Joe White is the Detroit bureau chief for The Wall Street Journal. Thanks very much, Joe.

Mr. WHITE: Anytime.

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