Most of the auto bailout coverage has focused on General Motors, because it's such a powerful symbol of American industrial collapse. Ford gets short shrift because it is still-barely-staying above water. And Chrysler has been very quiet lately, in part because of the secretive nature of its Cerberus Capital Management owners.
But Chrysler, despite being almost as badly off as GM, does have some interesting plans. Chrysler (which has some EV experience through the 40,000 GEM neighborhood electric cars its division has sold over the last 10 years) is clearly envious of all the attention the plug-in Chevrolet Volt has been getting. So last September it showed journalists a whole fleet of possible electric cars (including a small sports car based on a Lotus design, a Jeep Wrangler and a minivan), claiming that it would put at least one of them into production.
Chrysler may produce all three of these cool EV concept vehicles. (Chrysler photo)
Now it looks like they might all eventually go into showrooms. By 2010, Chrysler says it will be offering electric versions of a number of its current cars and trucks. "We're bringing all of our brands into this," said Doug Quigley, engineering executive for Chrysler's electric ENVI unit. "It's coming and it's real. These are real cars, not one-offs or science projects."
There are good and bad aspects of this first phase of Chrysler's plan. Piggy-backing on existing platforms is cost-effective, because it limits engineering costs. But electric cars work best when they're designed from the ground up. That way, they can be lightweight and designed around the battery packs. Shoehorning batteries into gasoline vehicles is often a compromise at best.
"People ask me what is different -- EVs have been around for a while," Quigley says. "I say what's different is we have viable high-energy storage systems."
Quigley says the biggest challenge facing Chrysler today is making sure that lithium-ion battery packs from outside suppliers actually will meet their manufacturers' claims about life cycle and durability. "They say they'll perform, but they have only six months of data because it's all so new."
A true game changer would be a sedan that could travel 300 to 400 miles on a single battery charge, but that's not likely to be achieved anytime soon. To achieve that kind of range, Chrysler plans to field a direct competitor to the Volt, with similar 40-mile all-electric range, and a small gas engine "range extender" to provide electricity for another 360 miles. But it may need a good lightweight platform to achieve that kind of range within cost targets. The Jeep it showed off came with a huge 27-kilowatt-hour battery pack, which would be pretty expensive in production.
Between 2012 and 2015, Chrysler says it will be rolling out fully engineered EVs. It wants to be producing half a million of them by 2013. "That's Generation Two, and it includes fully optimized electric vehicles," Quigley said.
Chrysler has not yet partnered with Better Place, the ambitious company headed by Shai Agassi that is working to create integrated EV recharging networks around the world. But it is open to the concept. "It lends a huge degree of credibility and opportunity to the whole industry," Quigley said. "It's a win-win for everybody."
Check with Chrysler again in 2015, assuming it and the whole industry survive the current hard times. By then it could be an entirely different car company.
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