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The future of electric cars: lighter vehicles, more miles per charge

Stronger batteries, lightweight carbon-fiber components and mass production will help electric cars replace the gasoline engine by 2050, technologists said at a conference Friday in Seattle.

If you believe Bob Lutz, one of the auto industry’s best-known executives, come midcentury we’ll all be driving around in lightweight electric cars that can go hundreds of miles between charges.

Electric-car technology is improving rapidly, he said, while internal-combustion engines are as good as they’re ever going to get.

Lutz, developer of the Chevy Volt, was in town for a conference at Seattle Center on Friday called “Beyond Oil” — an event that showcases green and high-tech transportation advances. Sponsored by local think-tank Cascadia Center, the city of Seattle, VIA Motors and others, the conference drew transportation execs, state officials and electric-car enthusiasts.

They showed off or peered inside an assortment of energy-efficient vehicles on display — everything from plug-in Nissan Leafs to an aerodynamic Viking X car built by students at Western Washington University, and something called a Firefly, for use by parking enforcers and security patrols.

For now, electric cars remain a niche market, with price being a huge factor — typically $35,000 to $40,000 for a basic passenger car.

Lutz guessed that unless electric cars can be priced as cheaply as gasoline-powered cars, only about 5 percent of the public will pay extra for green cars.

For now, he said, the most cost-effective use for electric motors is in trucks and delivery fleets that burn lots of gas.

He’s a board member at VIA Motors, which showed off a white van brought from Utah. Like a Volt, it runs all-electric during a normal workday, with gasoline as backup power for trips longer than 40 miles.

VIA plans to deliver 2,000 of the vehicles to government and business fleets around the country next year.

Still, plug-in cars have become more mainstream since 2006, when scientists and amateur mechanics at the Beyond Oil conference here spent time explaining how to retrofit a hybrid Prius so it could be plugged into a regular household power socket. Since then, Nissan, Chevrolet, Toyota, Ford and Mitsubishi have all developed plug-in models.


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