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Driving the auto industry: experts in auto, gas and electric industries discuss infrastructure and transportation in Michigan's future economy.

The future of the auto industry is uncertain--in more ways than one. Despite the financial troubles the auto companies are currently facing, it's hard to imagine what kind of updates to our infrastructure are needed in order to make a shift from traditional, gasoline-powered engines to electric ones.

How do we make the change when we have gas stations on every corner and a power grid that is decades old?

Gas isn't dead yet.

"Pure electric cars will have a tough time," said Dave Cole, chairman of the Center for Automotive Research. "The energy density in batteries is a tiny fraction of the energy density of liquid fuel. The same is true for gaseous fuels. Long range electric vehicles will not be that attractive because of the amount of batteries needed to power the car for extended ranges."

There is also the new phenomenon of "range anxiety"--where a person worries about the amount of driving they may have to do in a day versus the range of their electric car. For this reason, hybrid engines that recharge a battery while driving may be a better solution and will probably be the natural transition between gas and electric cars.

"Economics will also play a big role in shaping the future of the electric car," continued Cole. "The lithium batteries work; the science is there. But the scale is not there yet; we need high volume production. It will take a few generations of batteries before the volume is there."

Cole also noted that there is a level of uncertainty in predicting what products will be popular in a few years. "The consumer is going to determine what's popular--there's a high level of uncertainty now."


Changing the infrastructure

"Utilities across the country will need to continue to build on the reliability and intelligence of their electrical distribution systems," said Anthony F. Earley, chairman and CEO, DTE Energy. "We have the capacity to power electric cars, but the demand for electricity that will result when they become mainstream will need to be managed. If everyone plugs in their electric car when they get home from work, when demand is already at its peak, it's going to over tax the system."

That's where smart meters come in, he explained. This next generation of utility meters will show consumers the cost of electricity at various times of the day and will encourage and enable them to recharge their cars in off-peak hours. DTE Energy currently has a smart meter trial under way in Grosse Ile, and they expect to have these meters in place throughout the Michigan service territory within the next several years.

"Beyond the utilities, there will have to be a nationwide system of charging stations put in place," Earley continued, "much like the gas stations we have today. Homeowners will need to upgrade their properties to ensure their own electrical systems can safely accommodate recharging cars. We may see parking garages and municipalities installing charging systems as well."

Jennifer Baum is editor of the Detroiter.

Find out more about the session and hear from Bill Ford Jr. on
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Title Annotation:Innovation at Entrepreneurial Diversification
Author:Baum, Jennifer
Date:May 1, 2009
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