GM to make lithium-ion hybrids in 2010

The first vehicles will be mild hybrids with the plug-in Chevrolet Volt expected later that year.

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Electrically-powered cars like GM's planned Chevrolet Volt will rely on more powerful lithium-ion batteries.

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- General Motors Corp. says it expects to bring its first lithium-ion battery powered hybrid engine system to market in North America in 2010.

The world's largest automaker by sales will announce the hybrid system Tuesday at the Geneva International Motor Show, saying the new battery will deliver three times the power of GM's current nickel-metal-hydride batteries.

Automakers and battery companies across the globe have been racing to develop lithium-ion technology, seen by many as the key to producing more fuel-efficient, plug-in hybrid vehicles that could use energy collected from home electrical outlets to assist gasoline engines in driving the vehicle. Depending on the number of miles driven, vehicles like this could get more than 100 miles per gallon and could even make short trips using no gasoline at all.

Lithium-ion technology already is widely used in consumer electronics, but now is being adapted to meet demanding automotive requirements. The batteries are lighter than other batteries, but cost and concerns about overheating have delayed their use.

GM's (GM, Fortune 500) first use of the technology will be in a so-called mild hybrid system. The system will be an improved version of the "Belt-Alternator-Starter" system now used in the company's Saturn Aura and Vue Green-Line vehicles and its Chevrolet Malibu Hybrid.

With a mild-hybrid system, the electric motor cannot drive the car at any significant speed on its own. Instead, it provides assistance to the gasoline engine when extra power is needed and it allow the gasoline engine to shut down altogether when the vehicle stops, restarting automatically as needed.

GM's mild hybrid system offers a roughly 2 mpg improvement in the Aura and Malibu sedans and a 6 mpg improvement in the Vue SUV.

The company expects significantly greater fuel efficiency using lithium-ion batteries because these batteries will be able to store and release more energy. While being smaller and lighter than the nickel-metal hydrate battery currently used, the lithium ion battery would release about 33% more power, GM said.

A wide range of engines. To further boost fuel economy, the battery system would be paired with a wide range of GM engines, including turbocharged gasoline, diesel and biofuel power plants. It would be used in multiple GM models across all brands, but the company would not say which models would get the new system.

The new system will produce a 15% to 20% increase in fuel economy over what a nonhybrid vehicle would get in 2010, GM spokesman Brian Corbett said.

GM said the new hybrid system eventually will spread worldwide, and it expects sales volumes to exceed 100,000 vehicles per year. Building the system on GM's current hybrids will reduce engineering costs and the cost to consumers, the company said.

Next year, Daimler AG (DAI) plans to introduce a similar gasoline-electric hybrid version of its Mercedes-Benz flagship S-Class luxury sedan using a lithium-ion battery.

The GM and Daimler announcements in Geneva indicate increasing confidence about lithium-ion technology.

In addition, Toyota said in December it was preparing to start mass producing lithium-ion batteries for low-emission vehicles.

The company said the hybrid system would debut in North America before the Chevrolet Volt, which is a plug-in electric car with a small conventional motor used only to recharge the batteries. The company hopes to bring the Volt to market in 2010 as well.

AP contributed to this story. To top of page

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