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High Cost Of Batteries Affects Price Of Electric Car


And now to take this conversation beyond the lab. David Kiley joins us from our bureau in New York. He is senior correspondent for BusinessWeek and the author of several books on the auto industry. Welcome to the program, David.

Mr. DAVID KILEY (Senior Correspondent, BusinessWeek): Thanks for having me.

SIEGEL: Let's start with sticker shock first. The much anticipated Chevy Volt would cost a whopping $40,000. Why?

Mr. KILEY: Well, it's because of the cost of the battery itself. I mean this is really a battery on wheels with a little motor that when the battery runs out will sort of back up the battery. You've got the government involved here though. So the estimates are that when you factor in the government incentives to the consumer, the actual price to put this on the road will be something around $32,000.

SIEGEL: Now as you say, the image here is of a battery on wheels. I sat in a model of a Chevy Volt at the auto show in Detroit earlier this year and the battery in it is so big, it actually creates a hump that runs through the middle of the car and it reduces the rear seat in effect to two bucket seats. Why is it so big?

Mr. KILEY: Well, because in the case of the Volt, they want consumers to be able to drive on an electric charge up to about 40 miles. After 40 miles, then the gas fed engine or motor in the car then starts feeding energy through the battery that continues to power the car. So even after 40 miles, you're not - you're not running on gas, it's actually the gas motor is continuing to power the battery.

And so the more energy you need for that, the larger the battery has to be. If the range were only going to be say five or six miles on full electric, the battery would be able to be a lot smaller. But, you know, the Toyota Prius captured our imagination or the imagination of a lot of people with this certain wow factor, and GM is hoping for the same thing with the Volt.

SIEGEL: Speaking of the Prius, is Toyota wowed by the lithium ion battery technology?

Mr. KILEY: Not so much. They, at the Frankfurt Auto Show last week, talked about how their extensive testing of these lithium ion batteries have been kind of disappointing in terms of what they deliver for the cost that's necessary. So they actually have said that they don't think electric - all electric cars powered by lithium ion will be a real factor in the marketplace till about 2020. So they are continuing to work with the current battery technology, which is called nickel metal hydride. And that's the battery that's in the Prius. It's also in the Ford Escape hybrid and in some of the other hybrids that General Motors and other companies have on the market today.

SIEGEL: I gather Nissan has ambitions in this area.

Mr. KILEY: They do. Nissan - which is sort of mated up with French carmaker Renault, they're sort of owned and managed together - they have a very ambitious plan to start rolling out electric all-battery, all-electric vehicles by 2011, 2012 and 2013. And they've linked up with a company called Better Place, and they have a test, which they're starting in Israel and rolling out to about 20 countries where you wouldn't have to wait and recharge your battery. You could pull into a station and actually swap your battery and have a fully charged one put back in.

SIEGEL: Let's say though that a few years down the road we have Nissan cars like that, we have Toyota hybrids, we have GM Chevy Volts out there. What does that mean for servicing all these cars? Is one going to be limited to the dealership in all cases because they're the only people who know your car?

Mr. KILEY: Right. I think that in these first generations of all this new technology, it's going to be dealer only. And, you know, it's going to be quite a job for these car companies to train and educate these dealerships with new personnel and new training. And, you know, it's an area for new jobs. We can always use that.

SIEGEL: David Kiley, thank you very much for talking with us today.

Mr. KILEY: Thank you for having me.

SIEGEL: David Kiley is senior correspondent for BusinessWeek. And photos of that big Volt battery are at the All Tech Considered blog, that's at Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.