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Electric cars, fuel-efficiency policy and more

December 1, 2009 | 12:19 pm

The intersection between the auto industry and the alternative energy movement got crowded today as a group of speakers met in Westwood for the Bloomberg Cars & Fuels Briefing.

The day before the Los Angeles International Auto Show, presenters at the Hammer Museum discussed climate change and fuel efficiency legislation, battery-powered electric cars, industry investment in sustainability and other issues.

Car Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa previewed a plan to upgrade 400 existing charging stations for electric vehicles while adding 100 more. An incentive program would encourage the installation of plug-in stations at consumers’ homes, while also offering preferential or free parking in the city and use of HOV lanes.

“We’re the freeway capital of the world … the quintessential city of sprawl,” he said. “The place where we made the single-passenger auto the standard of the rest of the world is where we have to make the electric vehicle the same.” Villaraigosa will formally announce the plan at a news conference this afternoon.

Automakers are aiming to reach fuel economy standards of about 35.5 miles per gallon by 2016. The rules could call for 42 mpg or 45 mpg by 2020, shooting up to 55 mpg by 2030 before increasing further, said Roland Hwang, transportation program director of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Though electric vehicles dominated many panels, most auto representatives agreed that no single technology will be the silver bullet, and that the best strategy instead was to pursue many options simultaneously.

“We still don’t see this over the next 10 years as being the biggest part of our business or of the industry,” said Scott Becker, senior vice president of administration and finance for Nissan North America Inc. “We’re not putting all our eggs in one basket. ... We need transitional technologies, intermediate types of technologies that clearly need to be part of the equation.”

But the market for electric vehicles is large and it’s growing, some said.

“What you’re seeing is a universal migration to electricity … as a source of personal transportation,” said Bob Kruse, principal at EV Consulting. “The ultimate deciding factor will be cost, and it’s too early to pick a winner … but another energy source is going to be required, or else you’re going to have to lower growth in the whole world.”

One panel explored battery technologies and concerns about time required for recharging. Despite a surge of investment and interest, domestic manufacturers must also confront competition out of China as well as issues including recycling, cost and safety, speakers said.

The auto market has other hurdles coming its way as it tries to go green and clean. The volatility of oil prices can be a dangerous factor: “Making any strategic bets on the future soaring price of oil may be a fool’s errand,” said Robert Bienenfeld, senior manager of environment and energy strategy for American Honda Motor Co. Sustainability is also hard to achieve because it can’t be quantified, said Dan Sperling, director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at UC Davis.

“There’s no template, no definition,” he said. “This is why the politics is so difficult, as well as the policy.”

The future, he predicted, holds some mix of fuel-cell vehicles, plug-in hybrids and battery-powered electric cars. But consumers have been slow to embrace the technology, he said.

“They’re not willing to pay for a lot of fuel efficiency … even though they’ll get a payback in three years,” Sperling said.

Some at the gathering, such as John Juriga, director of powertrain for Hyundai-Kia America Technical Center Inc., suggested improvements on traditional internal combustion engines to make the gas guzzlers more efficient and less greedy for fuel.

“If it doesn’t make economic sense, we’re not going to put it into production,” he said.

Afternoon speakers include Jeremy Anwyl, chief executive of Inc. as well as executives and representatives from BMW Group of North America, Fisker Automotive Inc., Toyota Motor Sales USA and General Motors.

-- Tiffany Hsu

Photo: Joerg Koch/AFP/Getty Images