Will we see widespread use of battery-powered cars in our lifetime?

The battery in my iPod can't make it through a cross country plane trip. This makes me very concerned about the practical application for batteries in automobiles. How is the auto industry doing on progress towards battery-powered cars? Will we ever see them in our lifetime? Bob Virginia

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Bob, yes we will. I understand your skepticism, but don’t try to make any connection between the iPhone and the modern American car. The two share nothing in common. Nada. I mean, if GM shared even a tiny sliver of Apple’s knack to understand what’s cool, they’d probably be rolling out some sleek, 80-mile-per-gallon iChevette right now (or maybe even the EV 2) that we’d all be waiting in line to buy—even if we had to eat Ramen noodles and drink only water for six months to afford it.

The reason the iPhone doesn’t get great battery life is because Apple is trying to straddle the line between ungodly light weight (the 3G S tips the scales only 4.8 ounces) and power. Plug-in electric car makers don’t have to worry about this problem quite as much. Right now the typical lithium ion battery-powered vehicle (like the Tesla Roadster) gets somewhere between 100 and 200 miles per charge, and the charge time generally takes a few hours. In other words, it already works perfectly fine for the commute to work—unless you’re one of those psychos who drives three hours each way to the office so your family (who you never see because you’re too busy commuting) can live way out in the country.

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The future is even more promising. China is hell-bent on creating a battery-powered car to potentially dominate the world car market. In turn, the US government is doling out billions of dollars in loans to automakers for creating more fuel efficient cars here. Tesla is getting $465 million to ramp up production of its electric cars in California, GM is receiving $8.3 billion for the Chevy Volt (including money for a new battery plant in Michigan), and Nissan is using part of the $1.6 billion it’s getting to build batteries in Tennessee, according to the New York Times. As a result of this fierce competition, and rapidly growing demand for low-emissions, gas-free cars, we’re likely to see big breakthroughs in batteries in the coming years.

Now, for a solution for your iPhone problem, Bob: pull down the window shade beside you on the plane, and dim the screen’s brightness. That should increase your battery life enough to get you through the flight—unless you’re going all the way to China to check out one of its new car plants.

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