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GM Looks To S.F., D.C. In Driving Electric Vehicles

The upcoming Volt hybrid sedan is GM's attempt to work with local governments to build public charging stations and offer price incentives.

GM says it will start selling the plug-in hybrid Volt in the U.S. next year.
(click for image gallery)

General Motors plans to start selling its electric hybrid Volt sedan in the United States next year, and sees two communities as key to its early success: San Francisco and Washington, D.C.

The automaker announced Tuesday that it plans to work with "key stakeholders" in San Francisco and Washington to develop policies that accelerate the adoption of electric vehicles. That includes local government officials, utility companies, regulators and public utility commissions, officials responsible for permits and codes, environmental commissions, local employers, and universities.

With the unveiling of its "road map" for electric vehicle adoption in those communities on Tuesday, GM suggests it will be seeking some level of commitment of money and resources from their local governments, businesses, and universities for the building of charging stations, creation of price incentives for vehicles and electricity costs, and other incentives to drive adoption of the Volt.

It's already talking to San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom. "Cities have an indispensable role in making plug-in vehicles successful," Newsom said in a statement provided by GM. "Here in San Francisco, we are acting now to make sure the charging infrastructure will be available to support these vehicles as soon as they are ready for sale, and we are working with other cities in the region to make the Bay Area a thriving market for electric transportation."

GM said in a statement it'll work with government and business officials to offer sales incentives on the Volt, create public and workplace charging stations, develop "consumer-friendly" electricity rates, drive local government purchases of Volts for use by officials and employees, and ensure that the right codes and permits are in place to support plug-in infrastructures in those cities.

There already is considerable activity in California on this front. Better Place, a Palo Alto startup by former SAP executive Shai Agassi, has a plan to bring 250,000 charging ports to California by 2012 at an expected cost of $1 billion -- a plan supported by Newsom and other local mayors. And a company called Coulomb Technologies opened its first charging station in San Jose last month and plans more throughout the state in the coming years.

However, it's unclear where the funding will come from to support any of these ambitious plans, particularly in a state grappling with a $40 billion budget shortfall.

GM, though, is smart to recognize its best bet for Volt traction lies in communities that already are receptive to plug-ins. Sightings of Toyota Prius hybrids are becoming common in San Francisco, and the Obama administration will likely encourage an eco-friendly atmosphere in Washington.

"Collaborating with communities such as San Francisco and metropolitan areas such as Washington, D.C. -- where there’s already an interest in plug-in vehicles -- is another important step toward raising customer awareness of the environmental and economic benefits of vehicles such as the Volt," said Ed Peper, GM's North America VP, Chevrolet, in a statement.

Last month, GM announced at the Detroit Auto Show its plans open a battery research lab in Michigan. GM said it's hiring more engineers to work on battery technologies, is partnering with the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor on its research efforts, and will open up a Michigan plant to assemble battery packs based on lithium-ion batteries supplied by LG Chem Ltd. of Korea.

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