When Chrysler rolled out three electric vehicle prototypes a couple of weeks ago most EV experts were skeptical. They were even more skeptical when the company claimed that it would have an EV on sale by 2010. Wait a minute, everyone wondered, how could Chrysler have caught up with GM, Nissan and other automakers who have been working on EV's for a lot longer?
Well, to hear Chrysler tell it, it's not behind at all. It is the first major automaker to actually allow members of the media and dealers to drive its production-intent EV's. The company claims it's been working on EV's for at least two and a half years-or about the same time as the other major OEM's. Its effort came out of the fuel cell program it was working on with Mercedes, back in the good 'ole DCX days. They merely pulled the fuel cell out and dropped in a battery pack.

John McElroy is host of the TV program "Autoline Detroit". Every week he brings his unique insights as an auto industry insider to Autoblog readers. Follow the jump to continue reading this week's editorial.

Chrysler is relying heavily on suppliers to provide it with the latest technology. And it believes it may be onto a new, lower-cost way of doing EV batteries thanks to a program it has going with General Electric.

Most people are unaware of this, but Chrysler is already the world's largest manufacturer of electric vehicles, as long as you count NEV's, or neighborhood electric vehicles. Thanks to its GEM subsidiary, Chrysler already has over 40,000 NEV's on the road.

While these 25-mph neighborhood vehicles can't be taken on roads with speed limits over 35 mph, the company claims it's learned some important features about how to engineer electric cars. When it comes to battery charging technology, and developing the algorithms for state-of-charge and distance remaining, GEM has provided Chrysler with a head start. Some of the power electronics can be shared, and possibly, if I understand this correctly, a battery module for accessories.

Moreover, the company is developing a family of electric motors that can be scaled up or down to be used on everything from an electric scooter to a full-size SUV. That could prove critically important because OEM's need high-volume production to spread out their investment costs. If Chrysler can come up with a family of motors to fit a variety of vehicles and build those motors in one or two plants, that could give it tremendous volume.

Chrysler's goal is not to come out with one electric car. It wants to manufacture a full family of electric vehicles, both pure EV models, and range-extending EV's with an engine on board.

In C and D-class cars, it plans to use a two- or three-cylinder turbocharged engine that is smaller than 1.0-liters of displacement. It will provide 35 kilowatts of continuous power and hit peaks of 55 kilowatts. In bigger cars and SUV's it plans to use a 1.4- or 1.6-liter engine that will run constantly between 3,000 or 3,500 rpm.

These will be purpose-built engines, not something that's already on the shelf. Since they'll be running in a very limited rev-range, the idea is to de-content them to get the cost down. For example, they will not have alternators, starters or turbo wastegates.

And in what could turn out to be the ace up its sleeve, Chrysler is working with GE on a new kind of battery pack, one that combines both lithium-ion and sodium chemistries. Li-on batteries are well suited to provide big jolts of power, while sodium batteries are better suited for providing continuous power over longer distances. But the key is that sodium batteries are significantly cheaper than lithium ones. By combining the two together GE and Chrysler hope to bring down the cost of electric vehicles.

We should know pretty soon how well this all works. The company says it will put out a test fleet of cars with all this technology next year, and have a vehicle in its showrooms by 2010. I'm sure the skeptics are still skeptical, but if Chrysler can pull this off, it's going to change a lot of people's perceptions about the future of the company.

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