AUTOS:

Baltimore drivers to test 'near-enough perfect' electric fleet

BALTIMORE -- The speed at which the world embraces the electric car rests in its ability to build a better battery.

Several U.S. companies hope to race ahead of foreign rivals by using federal loans and grants to commercialize electric cars and lighter, longer-lasting batteries. But a Canadian company might get there first.

Mississauga, Ontario-based Electrovaya Inc. yesterday unveiled the Maya 300, a plug-in electric car that can get up to 120 miles on a charge of its lithium-ion battery. The Maya 300 charges in about eight hours, plugs into a regular household outlet and will be available to consumers within a year, promised Electrovaya Chairman and CEO Sankar Das Gupta, who unveiled a four-door version of the vehicle at the city's Inner Harbor.

"It's a perfect -- well, near-enough perfect -- vehicle for running around in cities," Das Gupta said of the sparkling green Maya 300.

The waterfront Maryland Science Center hopes to demonstrate Electrovaya's technology by operating a fleet of 10 vehicles. Beginning in August, Baltimore tourists will be able to rent the subcompact sedans and city residents will be able to use them via the center's car-sharing program.

"This is what science centers do best -- bringing emerging technologies to the road and proving them," said Van Reiner, the science center's chief executive officer.

Das Gupta said he hopes to ink deals with larger fleet operators to scale up production of the Maya 300, which is currently manufactured in Michigan. He hopes to begin selling the vehicle to the general public within a year for about $25,000 apiece.

"Ultimately, in order to drop the price of electric cars, you have to generate large volumes," explained Das Gupta, who said the lithium-ion battery his company makes constitutes 40-50 percent of the Maya 300's cost.

In addition to manufacturing and selling the Maya 300, Electrovaya would supply major automakers lithium-ion batteries -- which move lithium between an anode and cathode when charging and discharging. Das Gupta declined to say with whom he is discussing such an arrangement.

The Maya 300's debut here came as President Obama and his advisers gathered in Washington to announce $8 billion in loans to Ford Motor Co., Nissan Motor Co. and Tesla Inc. "We have an historic opportunity to help ensure that the next generation of fuel-efficient cars and trucks are made in America," Obama said.

Ford will receive $5.9 billion in loans through 2011 to help finance engineering advances to both traditional internal-combustion engines and electrified cars and trucks. The Detroit-based automaker, along with Britain's Smith Electric Vehicles, plans to launch the "Transit Connect" commercial fleet van in the United States next year.

Nissan will receive $1.6 billion to make electric cars and battery packs at an expanded manufacturing plant in Smyrna, Tenn. The Japanese automaker plans to begin selling electric cars in the United States and Japan next spring and begin mass-producing them globally in 2012 (Greenwire, June 23).

Nissan's Tennessee plant would produce up to 150,000 electric vehicles annually, according to DOE.

California's Tesla received $465 million to make its Model S sedan, starting in 2011. Production would ramp up to 20,000 vehicles annually by 2013.

Dow Chemical in battery venture

Even century-old Dow Chemical Co. is getting into the electric vehicle business.

"We have decided to go into this in a very large and comprehensive way," said George Hamilton, Dow's vice president for government markets.

In April, Dow formed a joint venture with Kokam America Inc. and its majority investor Townsend Ventures LLC, to make lithium polymer batteries for electric vehicles.

The joint venture, called KD Advanced Battery Group LLC, has applied for a $275 million matching grant from the Energy Department to build two U.S. manufacturing plants.

If Dow and its partners get the grant, they plan to break ground on the plants in Michigan and Missouri in the second half of 2009 and begin producing batteries in late 2011. Each plant would cost about $600 million to build and produce about 60,000 batteries annually.

About 1,200 of the batteries would go to Smith Electric Vehicles. Dow also is in battery supply talks with U.S. automakers, Hamilton said.

"Smith is focused on the fleet market," he explained. "For this industry to get up and running, we need to demonstrate scale."

Dow aims to get the cost per watt of output of electric batteries on the market to about $450 from a range of $750 to $1,500 today. Electric vehicles must constitute 10 percent of global auto sales in 2015 in order to be cost-competitive with vehicles that have internal combustion engines and nickel-based batteries, Hamilton estimated.

More than 50 million new vehicles hit the world’s roads each year, and President Obama has set a goal of 1 million electric vehicles on U.S. roads by 2015.

Electrovaya’s Das Gupta is bullish on America’s -- and the world’s -- ability to achieve the Obama’s goal.

“We expect that within the next few years, one third of these vehicles will be electric,” he said.