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Originally published September 7, 2012 at 9:23 PM | Page modified September 8, 2012 at 1:34 PM

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The future of electric cars: lighter vehicles, more miles per charge

Stronger batteries, lightweight carbon-fiber components and mass production will help electric cars replace the gasoline engine by 2050, technologists said at a conference Friday in Seattle.

Seattle Times transportation reporter

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If you believe Bob Lutz, one of the auto industry's best-known executives, come midcentury we'll all be driving around in lightweight electric cars that can go hundreds of miles between charges.

Electric-car technology is improving rapidly, he said, while internal-combustion engines are as good as they're ever going to get.

Lutz, developer of the Chevy Volt, was in town for a conference at Seattle Center on Friday called "Beyond Oil" — an event that showcases green and high-tech transportation advances. Sponsored by local think-tank Cascadia Center, the city of Seattle, VIA Motors and others, the conference drew transportation execs, state officials and electric-car enthusiasts.

They showed off or peered inside an assortment of energy-efficient vehicles on display — everything from plug-in Nissan Leafs to an aerodynamic Viking X car built by students at Western Washington University, and something called a Firefly, for use by parking enforcers and security patrols.

For now, electric cars remain a niche market, with price being a huge factor — typically $35,000 to $40,000 for a basic passenger car.

Lutz guessed that unless electric cars can be priced as cheaply as gasoline-powered cars, only about 5 percent of the public will pay extra for green cars.

For now, he said, the most cost-effective use for electric motors is in trucks and delivery fleets that burn lots of gas.

He's a board member at VIA Motors, which showed off a white van brought from Utah. Like a Volt, it runs all-electric during a normal workday, with gasoline as backup power for trips longer than 40 miles.

VIA plans to deliver 2,000 of the vehicles to government and business fleets around the country next year.

Still, plug-in cars have become more mainstream since 2006, when scientists and amateur mechanics at the Beyond Oil conference here spent time explaining how to retrofit a hybrid Prius so it could be plugged into a regular household power socket. Since then, Nissan, Chevrolet, Toyota, Ford and Mitsubishi have all developed plug-in models.

The next big advance? The experts say it will be automobile bodies made of lightweight carbon fiber that will help cars run on less energy, much like the Boeing Dreamliner.

That, in turn, will enable cars to be propelled by smaller batteries and powertrains, according to Amory Lovins, chief scientist of the Rocky Mountain Institute, which does research into efficient technologies.

A carbon-built auto industry is already getting under way, Lovins said, noting that carbon fiber made in Moses Lake is being sent to BMW in Germany, and a company called Fiberforge is negotiating with U.S. automakers about how to build carbon-fiber vehicles.

Another topic at Friday's conference: overcoming range anxiety, a fear by drivers that a battery will run low before the car reaches a charging station.

Lutz expects that concern to ease within five years, when a new generation of lithium-sulfur batteries should be commercially viable.

"Think of a Chevy Volt, instead of 40 miles [per charge], you're thinking about 200 miles," he said. Already, engineers are working on lithium-air batteries that might deliver 400 to 450 miles between charges, if a way can be found to recharge them, he said. "You have to start asking yourselves, who needs a gasoline engine anymore? For that matter, who needs a network of charging stations?"

Washington, Oregon and California have been installing charging stations mostly along the I-5 corridor, not to mention countless chargers at private and public parking spaces.

Electric-car owner Kevin Boze, of Seattle, raved about his CODA, a sedan with a range of 124 miles. It replaced his old pickup, which drank up $400 a month in gas, he said. Solar panels at his home supply most of the car's power, he said.

"Our garage was built for horse and buggy, and now we have an electric car," said his wife, Grace Reamer.

Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or mlindblom@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @mikelindblom.

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