Major automakers say they can have plug-in hybrid vehicles in showrooms within five years, offering big increases in fuel economy for what they hope will be modest price premiums.

Based on results from prototypes, plug-ins appear capable of 50 to 100 miles per gallon on short trips when the vehicles operate mainly on their increased battery power. "If we can't decide within five years whether we can do this, something is wrong," says Greg Frenette, chief engineer for plug-in and fuel-cell vehicles at Ford Motor.

Plug-in hybrids are conventional gasoline-electric hybrid vehicles toting bigger batteries, which can be charged from a household outlet.

The extra battery capacity allows the vehicles to operate on battery-only power for the first 5 or 10 miles. Then it reverts to normal hybrid mode, blending gasoline and electric power.

The U.S. Energy Department said Thursday that it will award up to $30 million to projects intended to "deliver up to 40 miles of electric range without recharging" and to make plug-ins "cost-competitive by 2014 and ready for commercialization by 2016."

It said 40 miles would cover most commutes and 70% of average driving.

Key will be progress on lithium-ion batteries, which store more energy and are smaller than today's nickel-metal hydride batteries. Toyota wants "to be sure they're robust enough to withstand the extreme charging-discharging cycles in a plug-in hybrid, and still last the life of the car," says Jaycie Chitwood, senior planner at Toyota's advanced technologies unit in the USA.

Ford will exhibit a plug-in version of its Escape hybrid SUV at the Washington, D.C., auto show next week. Ford will make 20 with lithium batteries for trials by Southern California Edison.

Frenette forecasts 70 to 120 mpg, depending on driving conditions.

GM said at the Detroit auto show that it plans a plug-in version of its Saturn Vue hybrid "as soon as 2010." GM tests show 10 miles of moderate driving on the lithium batteries only and overall fuel economy of 60 mpg or so.

Toyota showed off a plug-in Prius hybrid prototype at the Detroit show this week and says it could begin regular production within a few years. "It's more when than if," Chitwood says.

The handful in demonstration service now use nickel-metal hydride batteries and will shift to lithium as Toyota begins putting 400 plug-in Priuses into demonstration service worldwide beginning late next year or early 2010.

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