Charge! Rise of the electric car

As car makers everywhere plan for a low-carbon future, Vauxhall hopes to build its green hybrid at Ellesmere Port, says Sarah Arnott
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The Independent Online

GM IS applying for loan guarantees under the Government's £2.3bn car industry rescue package to help ready its Ellesmere Port factory to produce Ampera hybrid electric vehicles.

The application, which is understood to be for up to £750,000, is part of the plan to establish GM Europe as a separate entity from its beleaguered US parent.

While GM in the US is expecting a decision on its recovery strategy from the Obama government next week, discussions in Europe focus on loan guarantees from Germany, which is home to three of the subsidiary's main manufacturing operations. But the UK, and the Ellesmere Port factory, is also crucial. GM in the UK contributes a quarter of the European company's business, and low-carbon developments are central to future plans. "If the German plan goes through, it is the first big step towards electric production in the UK," an industry source said.

Assuming it survives, Vauxhall is already committed to produce the new Astra at Ellesmere Port in September. The Ampera – which can be charged from a household socket and combines a lithium-ion battery with an on-board petrol engine-generator – is based on the same mould as the Astra, and has a range of up to 300 miles. The US import is scheduled to go on sale from 2011.

Although there are barely more than a few thousand wholly electric cars on UK roads today, and only a few tens of thousand hybrids such as the Ampera, GM's electric dreams are shared by all the major car makers. The Government is also trying to nudge things along. The loan guarantee package Vauxhall hopes to tap for the Ampera was launched in January in response to the crisis bedevilling the industry. Notwithstanding the flak the scheme has drawn for tying assistance to long-term, low-carbon programmes, rather than focusing on the acute short-term problems cutting a swathe through production and jobs, green cars are the future. Matthew Alabaster, the manufacturing director at PricewaterhouseCoopers, said: "Electrification is a great long-term opportunity. It is not going to yield massive business in the short term, but it is where the industry should be pushing."

Battery technology is the key. The only entirely electric vehicles currently available are small, urban runabouts like the G-Wiz. Models that are capable of longer journeys – such as the Ampera or the well-established Toyota Prius – are hybrids combining battery power with either bursts of speed from a standard internal combustion engine or electricity generated by it. Existing batteries simply cannot last long enough or provide enough power without being too heavy. But while there is research on the subject, it is not co-ordinated. "We are nowhere near leading on battery development, but it is still unclaimed ground," Mr Alabaster said. "There is a fantastic opportunity for the UK, but at the moment research is so disparate and disconnected across industry and academia that there is no commercial alignment."

In the meantime, the big manufacturers have big plans, all at different stages of development with different technologies. Honda's new hybrid will go on sale in dealerships next week, imported from Japan. The Insight is a five-door, family car priced at around £3,000 less than its nearest rival. "We are trying to bring hybrids more into the mainstream," a spokesman said. "Honda builds cars as near to the market as possible, so if demand takes off then we could build them here. But there are no plans to do that as yet."

Nissan has just launched a four-month programme with OneNorthEast – the regional development agency local to its Sunderland plant – looking at how to bolster the use of electric vehicles and considering the feasibility of both sale and manufacture in the region. Jaguar Land Rover recently won a £27m government grant to build the LRX all-new Range Rover diesel hybrid at its Halewood plant, and is also applying to the loan guarantee scheme to help with parts of its £400m annual research and development spend.

Toyota's FT-EV, an all-electric "urban commuter vehicle" like the G-Wiz, was showcased at the Geneva Motor Show earlier this month, and is scheduled to go on sale in 2012. The Japanese giant is also starting trials of the next-generation Prius in Strasbourg later this year. Scheduled for a 2012 release date, the Prius will be rechargeable from a normal household socket.

Tiny electric cars may have a limited consumer market, but they could be a good answer to companies running city delivery networks. Modec, which builds battery-run commercial vehicles, went into production in 2007. Although the numbers are small so far, it already counts Tesco, Fedex and Marks & Spencer among its customers.

Both limited-range battery-powered cars and the bigger hybrid models are only an interim technology. Professor Baback Yazdani, the dean of Nottingham Business School, said: "Hybridisation will be for the next five or 10 years, the next generation technologies like hydrogen fuel cells will come after."

A vital issue, both for electric cars (see box) and whatever supersedes them, is the support infrastructure. Honda has a leasing programme for its FCX Clarity hydrogen car in the US and Japan, but the UK is not even on the radar. "The big question in the UK is there is no hydrogen infrastructure," a spokesman said.

On the road: How to fill up an EV

*There is little point in having an all-electric vehicle (EV) if it is impossible to keep the battery charged.

*So far, London is the most EV-friendly location in Britain. The capital's 2,000-odd EV owners register, receive a radio frequency-controlled access card not unlike a door pass, and draw power from any of 40 charging stations. There are also 40 charging points outside London.

*Within two months, there will be 100 bays, and by the end of the year more than double that, said Calvey Taylor-Haw, the managing director of Elektromotive, which supplies the bays.

*For EVs to take off, cities will be need to be crammed with charging points – outside cinemas, shopping centres, offices. "Instead of filling up the car once a week and running it to empty, you plug in whenever you stop," Mr Taylor-Haw said.