With the world's automakers gearing up for Detroit's annual auto show, General Motors announced it would team up with two automotive and battery manufacturers to develop a lithium-ion battery that would let sport utility vehicles get 70 miles per gallon.
GM currently produces the Saturn Vue Green Line, a hybrid SUV that gets 27 mpg in the city and 32 mpg on the highway, company spokesman Brian Corbett said. The SUV's next generation, a so-called plug-in model, is expected to replace its current nickel-metal hydride battery with a lithium-ion battery, which would allow the vehicle to rely more heavily on electric power than on gasoline-based energy.
"Based on simulation results, when the (lithium ion) battery is fully charged, you'll be able to achieve 70 miles per gallon in short stop-and-go trips," Corbett said.
Corbett called the lithium-ion research a "priority program" but said GM hasn't set a production date for the plug-in model, so named because users would recharge the battery by plugging it into an electric outlet.
Coverage on cnbc.com
The Detroit auto show, which will be covered extensively on CNBC and cnbc.com starting Sunday, is expected to draw 750,000 people from Jan. 13-21.
GM will work with at least two manufacturers to research production of lithium-ion batteries, which are already common in small electronics such as laptops and cell phones but haven't been adapted to the more rigorous demands of a car engine.
One manufacturer is Johnson Controls-Saft Advanced Power Solutions LLC, a joint venture between automotive-systems manufacturer Johnson Controls Inc. headquartered in Milwaukee and Paris-based Saft SA, which makes high-performance industrial batteries.
"This (GM deal) really showcases that we're in the forefront for lithium technology for hybrid and plug-in hybrid technology," said Karen Bauer, director of strategic planning for the Johnson Controls battery group.
GM's other partnership is with Cobasys, a joint venture between California-based Chevron and Energy Conversion Devices. Cobasys will work with A123Systems, a technology group in Massachusetts.
The partnerships involve development contracts, not production contracts. That means they will have until the end of 2007 to produce working battery models that GM can test in its prototypes, Corbett said.
GM gave them power and energy-capacity specifications that Corbett declined to reveal. He and Bauer also declined to disclose financial terms.
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The automaker said it was not limiting its development relations to these two companies.
"We expect to learn a lot from them but we know there are a lot of other companies out there with growing expertise that we need to continue to have discussions with," Corbett said.
Every car and battery manufacturer is probably researching similar lithium-ion technology and for good reason, said David Cole, chairman for the nonprofit Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich.
"Nickel-metal hydride batteries have about twice the capabilities of the standard lead-acid batteries, and lithium-ion batteries have about twice that of nickel-metal hydride," he said.
The plug-in battery being researched would in theory allow drivers traveling 10 to 20 miles to draw power exclusively from the electric battery and use no gasoline, Cole said. That would dramatically improve gas mileage and compel the energy industry to find lower-cost alternatives, he added.
"It's not something that's real yet but the opportunities are real and substantial," he said. "Things are going to get hot."