Will drivers go for electric cars?

Published: Sunday, January 11, 2009 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 10, 2009 at 5:17 p.m.

DEARBORN, Mich. — Inside the Ford Motor Co., it was called Project M — to build a prototype of a totally electric, battery-powered car in just six months.

When it was started last summer, the effort was considered a tall order by the small team of executives and engineers assigned to it. After all, the auto industry can take years to develop vehicles.

But Ford was feeling pressure from competitors, and decided it could not afford to fall behind in the rapidly expanding race to put electric cars in dealer showrooms.

“Frankly, I think it’s a gamble not to do it,” William C. Ford Jr., the company’s executive chairman, said in an interview. “It’s clear that society is headed down this road.”

Certainly, Ford and other carmakers are betting billions of dollars on this new direction, at a time when they can ill afford it and when Detroit is facing government scrutiny after the $17.4 billion bailout of GM and Chrysler.

Throughout the cavernous Detroit auto show hall, typically the high temple of brute horsepower, auto companies will be competing this week to establish their green and electric credentials. Today, when the show opens, Ford will announce plans for its electric vehicle.

There are no guarantees that consumers will buy enough of them. They may balk, for example, at the limits on how far they can drive on a single charge.

Ford plans to make only 10,000 of the electric vehicles a year at first, to test the market cautiously.

Still, the scope of projects by Ford and others, is convincing some environmentalists that the industry is serious about electric cars.

“I think the days of the gasoline engine are numbered, even if we don’t know exactly what that number is,” said Daniel Becker, head of the Safe Climate Campaign, which is part of the Center for Auto Safety consumer advocacy group in Washington.

The competition over electrics is picking up speed and players. Toyota will display a battery-powered concept car at the Detroit show. Nissan’s chief executive, Carlos Ghosn, has promised to sell an electric car as early as next year.

Two Japanese automakers, Mitsubishi and Fuji Heavy Industries, are also testing electric cars. And Chrysler, the most troubled of Detroit’s three auto companies, has vowed to produce its first electric car by 2010.

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