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USA: G. Chambers Williams III: Getting U.S. drivers to go electric

The push to electrify the vehicles Americans drive, in an effort to reduce air pollution and our dependence on foreign oil, moves into high gear this year as automakers ramp up production of battery-operated cars.

These include the pure-electric Nissan Leaf, Ford Focus and Mitsubishi iMiEV, as well as the plug-in hybrid Chevrolet Volt and a new plug-in model of the Toyota Prius (coming for 2013).

All of these vehicles were on display and available for media test drives at the Plug-In 2011 conference I attended this past week in Raleigh, N.C. – a sort of who’s who and what’s what of the whole U.S. electric-vehicle movement.

There was a lot of enthusiasm evident there about plug-in vehicles – ranging from the pure electrics to those like the Volt that can run on batteries but also have gasoline-powered range-extending – and it’s clear there is at least a fledgling market for them.

But as automakers roll out the all-electric vehicles, speculation runs high about how many people actually will buy them, whether there will be enough strategically located public charging stations to make them practical – and whether tax dollars being spent on the various EV programs make sense as governments at all levels battle record budget deficits.

Nissan has the biggest investment so far, with a commitment of several billion dollars worldwide along with its French partner Renault. Nissan is spending $1.6 billion alone to build a lithium-ion battery plant and assembly line for the Leaf at its manufacturing complex in Tennessee. Leafs and batteries are expected to begin production there late next year.

For the project, Nissan received a $1.4 billion Department of Energy advanced-technology vehicles loan.

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