In 1924, General Motors president Alfred P. Sloan Jr. devised annual model-year design changes in order to maintain unit sales. Body shapes faced cosmetic changes every year, whether or not the underlying automobile had changed. This breakthrough strategy had widespread effects on the automobile business, automotive design, and eventually the United States economy. In recent years, amongst a worsening economy and a struggling auto industry, the underlying automobile has changed rapidly, with emphases on efficiency and environmental friendliness. As industrialized nations begin to devote serious attention to lessening dependence on oil and at improving emissions, the electrification of the automobile is a very real solution.

Market researchers expect the sales figures for battery-operated vehicles such as hybrid electric vehicles (HEVs), plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs), and electric vehicles (EVs) to climb steeply. More than 75 hybrid models will hit the market by 2011, and it is the Obama administration’s goal to put one million American-built PHEVs on the road by 2015. Several companies, including Chrysler, Mercedes-Benz, Mitsubishi, Toyota, and Smart, showed experimental electric cars at this year’s North American International Auto Show.

GM’s Chevy Volt Plug-In Hybrid electric vehicle uses lithium-ion cells in the vehicle’s 16-kWh battery pack.
The main battery technologies that are potentially viable for HEVs, PHEVs, and EVs are lead-acid (Pb), nickel metal hydride (NiMH), and lithium-ion (Li-ion). Lithium is the lightest metal, with properties unique in terms of energy and power density, and it is mined in parts of South America, Canada, Australia, and Tibet. NiMH technology is presently the presiding battery application for HEVs, but the market is shifting to Li-ion due to its size, weight, performance, and cost advantages.

Purely electric vehicles are the most environmentally friendly out of the three battery-powered vehicles. EVs offer several advantages, such as zero tailpipe emissions, overnight battery recharging, and the use of cleaner energy produced through advanced natural gas and coal gasification technologies. Electric vehicles also offer energy security by replacing imported petroleum with domestically generated electricity. Yet the American auto industry still faces challenges from foreign competition in batteries. Until the battery-operated automotive market launched, there were no large markets in the US to sustain Liion battery manufacturing. The extensive amount of consumer electronics products that use lithium-ion batteries, such as laptops and cell phones, are manufactured in Asia.

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