Can the Chevy Volt Recharge General Motors?

The long-awaited GM car is the first in a new fleet of more affordable electric vehicles

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Roy Ritchie for TIME

The Chevrolet Volt, GM's new electric car, on the production line at the Detroit Hamtramck assembly facility.

The documentary who killed the Electric Car? accused General Motors of conspiring with the oil industry and politicians to shelve its popular and promising EV1 in the 1990s. How things have changed. Soon electric cars will be whirring through your neighborhood, and some of them will be made by GM. These battery-powered vehicles, charged in your wall outlet like some oversized cordless power tool, will revolutionize not only the auto industry but also the way Americans live and drive.

At least that's what major automakers are betting billions on. Tesla's high-performance $101,000 roadster is already the must-have toy for Silicon Valley boys. This fall, more-affordable cars will roll out. GM is launching its long-awaited and much hyped electric Volt for about $40,000, with federal tax rebates that knock the price down to $32,500. Around the same time, Nissan will begin selling its all-electric Leaf, a $32,780 compact that the Japanese carmaker says will average 100 miles on a charge, and Daimler will lease an all-electric version of its Smart Car. Not to be outdone, BMW, Chrysler, Ford and Mitsubishi, among others, will have electric models within a year or so. Even Toyota, long a proponent of hybrids, announced in May a venture with Tesla to develop electric-car technology in California.

The fossil-fueled internal-combustion engine that's now powering your car isn't going away anytime soon. But automakers understand that the technology, in place since the 19th century, is unsustainable. With the world's population slated to jump from 6.8 billion to 9 billion by 2050, the number of cars will outstrip the supply of oil that currently drives them. Tony Posawatz, who heads GM's Volt project, says, "Everyone agrees we have to get off of oil. In 10 years, the number of cars around the globe will rise from 800 million to 1.1 billion. We know the price of oil will go up again."

Plug-in cars will help the U.S. kick its oil addiction and address crude's familiar litany of problems: the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico, greenhouse-gas emissions and a dependence on petro-punk dictators who don't always have America's best interests at heart. That's something not lost on the Obama Administration, which has allocated billions in stimulus funds to support electric-car makers and build a national infrastructure of charging stations.

Should you buy an electric car this year? Huge roadblocks remain. How many drivers will be willing, or able, to charge their cars 7 or 8 hours a day for only 100 or so miles of driving? More than a few will surely suffer from the dreaded "range anxiety" — worrying that they'll run out of juice in the middle of nowhere. Price is an issue too. Electrics cost considerably more than comparable gasoline-powered cars and are too expensive for the average buyer.

The good news is that, unlike in the mechanical world, where improvements are incremental, electric-car technology is advancing quickly, and the price is dropping as it does. The key is lowering the cost of the lithium-ion battery. The Nissan Leaf battery costs an estimated $15,000, about half the car's sticker price. (A $7,500 federal tax credit takes away a bit of the sting.) The cost of making these power packs, however, will drop — according to some experts, by half in a few years. And charging the car? The U.S. now has only about 1,000 battery-charging stations, mostly in California. Department of Energy grants will help fund at least 10,000 more of them in selected cities nationwide by the end of 2011.

Bringing Hope to Detroit
Of all the automakers in this electrifying game, the one for which the stakes are highest is GM, a.k.a. Government Motors, the taxpayer-controlled company that is struggling back from bankruptcy. So far, GM has invested $700 million to tool up for the Volt, not including countless millions in R&D spending. Mark Reuss, president of GM North America, looks at the Volt as a small step in the right direction: "The car is not do or die for GM, but it is a demonstration of our technical prowess." In other words, if electrics are the future, GM can't afford to be left behind.

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