Two years ago, General Motors Corp. introduced its vision for a new generation of electric cars in a splashy ceremony at the North American International Auto Show.
Now it's facing a deadline to make that vision the Chevrolet Volt a true production vehicle by the end of next year, and working to bring together a supply base needed to make it happen.
It is not alone. North American, Asian and European carmakers are all committing themselves to all-electric vehicles for mainstream manufacturing, and working to solve a range of engineering issues so they can launch those vehicles flawlessly.
``It's not just about making a demonstration car and it's not just about making a small fleet,'' said Ann Marie Sastry, director of the energy systems engineering program at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, who has been working with GM to help train new and existing engineers on electric car systems.
For an auto industry that takes three years to make a simple change in the shape of a body panel, changing the entire infrastructure that makes that car run is a massive undertaking, especially within a four-year deadline. Screw up the electric car introduction, and consumers may be put off from them for years go come.
``This is the automotive problem of our time,'' Sastry said in a Jan. 12 interview at the Detroit auto show. ``We have to be able to take mathematical models of batteries and how they work and transform that into performance over the lifetime of a vehicle.''
The industry faces two major issues from the start in the ``electrification of the vehicle'': how to handle the change to lithium-ion batteries and electric motors, and how to channel that power into a comfortable car.
Most gas and electric hybrid cars now on the market, like Toyota Motor Corp.'s Prius, rely on nickel metal hydride batteries. The Volt and other electric cars planned by Toyota, Ford Motor Co., Chrysler LLC and nearly every other carmaker, will use lithium-ion batteries, which will hold more of a charge for a longer time.
Lithium-ion batteries use plastics extensively. Wilmington, Del.-based DuPont Co., for instance, has more than seven different resin blends sold for membranes, films, capacitors, connectors, wires and other parts. It is testing components with more than a dozen different battery makers and eight different automakers currently.
``We have a list of things that would be a very big opportunity for us on technical challenges that need to be solved,'' said Paul Kane, DuPont Automotive development programs manager electrical and electronics.
Tesla Motors Inc. has a sports car with a body made of carbon fiber composites. The car, being produced in California, uses thousands of small batteries to power it for up to 250 miles on a single charge. GM and other large automakers prefer a smaller number of large batteries designed specifically for the auto industry.
Tesla is expanding its battery program during the next two years into a sedan and a battery pack for Daimler AG's electric version of the Smart mini-car.
``The exciting thing about [the Smart batteries] is that it's going to allow us to accelerate the advent of the affordable electric car,'' said Tesla Chairman Elon Musk.
Teamwork between carmakers like Tesla and Daimler and between automakers, suppliers and research companies such as the University of Michigan is a key in making the electric car concept a reality.
Johnson Controls Inc.'s Johnson Controls-Saft battery joint venture unit has been working with automakers on key lithium-ion battery programs, while JCI's auto interiors unit displayed a concept car interior that looked at ways to store the battery packs.
Dearborn, Mich.-based Ford has named Magna International Inc. of Auburn, Ontario, as its key supplier in development of battery packs for future electric vehicles. GM named South Korea's LG Chem Ltd. as supplier for the batteries for the Volt even as GM worked to rally other investments in North America and build its own production facility.
A new industry consortium, the National Alliance for Advanced Transportation Batteries, is forming in the U.S. with more than 21 companies involved in issues related to the electric car push, said Mike Sanders, global business director of DuPont Energy Storage Solutions.
``Quite frankly, we need to develop some suppliers in the U.S., because this game is in Japan and Korea right now as far as lithium-ion is concerned,'' said Jim Queen, group vice president for global engineering at GM. ``Part of our message today is to signal our strategic intent. We intend to have this as a core competency, and we intend to do a lot of this as a [manufacturer] here.''
Beyond the battery infrastructure, automakers and suppliers have to figure out other issues related to the electric car.
GM has been bringing in mechanics from auto dealerships to help them understand how to perform standard maintenance on a car with high voltage, Queen said.
Meanwhile, DuPont is working on resins that can shield high electromagnetic frequency levels.
The shielding requirements for a cell phone, for instance, is very different from that of an electric car battery, Kane said.
``They're bringing up new things that we're not used to working with,'' he said. ``There are some new inventions for plastics to meet those needs.''