General Motors Corp said it plans production of upgraded hybrid gasoline-electric vehicles in 2010 using more powerful lithium-ion batteries that promise to boost fuel economy by up to 20 per cent.
Lithium-ion batteries will be able to provide nearly three times the power of the nickel metal hydride batteries now used in most hybrid vehicles, while weighing far less and taking up less space, the automaker said.
Widespread production of hybrid vehicles with lithium-ion technology is seen as a key step toward making rechargeable or "plug-in" hybrid vehicles, such as the Chevrolet Volt.
The Volt is being designed to run on electric power alone for short distances and to recharge by plugging into a standard electric outlet.
The highly anticipated Volt is central to GM's bid to challenge rival Toyota Motor Corp's dominance in the market for the small but fast-growing hybrid market.
GM said it expects to roll out the new hybrid system, which will use different technology than the Volt, across its brands and regions starting with North America. By targeting annual production above 100,000 vehicles, GM expects to be able to drive down the cost, executives said.
GM said its new hybrid system would build on current technology used on its Saturn Vue Green Line, the Saturn Aura Green Line and the Chevrolet Malibu hybrids and could improve fuel economy by between 15 per cent and 20 per cent.
GM expects to be able to pair the new hybrid system with several engine types. In one example, a battery would provide an immediate boost in power at the start of acceleration and a turbocharger would kick in later.
The more powerful batteries in the new system are expected to reduce fuel consumption during acceleration. GM said the new hybrid system will be able to capture more power for recharging the batteries when the driver applies the brakes.
Hitachi Vehicle Energy Ltd, a subsidiary of Tokyo-based Hitachi Ltd, would initially supply the lithium-ion batteries to GM, although the supply contract does not preclude GM from using a number of suppliers.
Johnson Controls Inc and Cobasys, a venture of Chevron Corp and Energy Conversion Devices Inc, all had been awarded contracts to develop lithium-ion batteries for the Saturn Vue hybrid.
The automaker has targeted the end of 2010 for production of the Volt plug-in hybrid, which would use a gasoline engine only to help recharge its batteries.
GM has been testing lithium-ion technology for the Volt with a unit of German auto supplier Continental AG that is working with Massachusetts-based A123 Systems, and with Compact Power Inc, a subsidiary of South Korea-based LG Chem Ltd.
GM's push to roll out new hybrid vehicles comes as automakers begin working toward higher federal fuel economy standards. The new US standards approved last year mandate a 40 per cent increase in fleetwide fuel economy by 2020.
Sales of hybrids surged 40 per cent in the US market last year but still represent less than 3 per cent of overall vehicle sales. Toyota's popular Prius hybrid has dominated the category, accounting for about 80 per cent of all hybrid sales. (Reuters)
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