Infrastructure and cost hurdles remain the biggest impediments to widespread acceptance of electric vehicles, but General Motors Corp. says it is working through those issues with suppliers, utilities, public agencies and others as it moves closer to launching the Chevrolet Volt extended-range electric vehicle.

Wrapped on the knuckles by the Obama Admin.’s auto task force in recent days, which said the Volt is “too expensive to be commercially successful in the short-term,” GM officials make a case for why their work on the car may represent one of the biggest steps yet toward achieving the government’s goal of getting 1 million plug-in vehicles on U.S. roads by 2015.

The Volt, based on the same Delta architecture that will support the upcoming Chevrolet Cruze small car, is expected to sticker for close to $40,000 when it debuts in November 2010, with much of its added costs tied to its use of advanced lithium-ion batteries.

GM engineers and other experts agree there will be limits to driving costs out of the batteries in subsequent generations of the technology. But Tony Posawatz, vehicle line director for the Volt, says there are many other opportunities for lowering the cost of the car beyond just the batteries.

For instance, GM is paying “two to three times” what it would like for the Volt’s charger, because there aren’t many suppliers to choose from, Posawatz says.

“But as we get volumes of vehicles out there…more suppliers will get engaged,” he says. “More competition drives cost down.”

There’s potential for “hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars” per vehicle in savings as a supplier infrastructure emerges, Posawatz says.

There are additional cost-reduction possibilities in simplifying systems that may be over-engineered in the first-generation car to avoid catastrophic failures once the Volt is in consumers’ hands.

“Do you really need to have this sophisticated heating and cooling system?” he says. “There are some opportunities as we optimize and refine the design. There are some opportunities in scale as it relates to volume production.”

There also is ample room for lowering costs by improving logistics.

“We have to spend quite a significant amount of money to transport cells, which are still the predominant cost in the full pack,” Posawatz says. “I mean hundreds of dollars just to transport them. Duties, tariffs (and) special packages, containers that are climate controlled.”

Mark Duvall, director-electric transportation for the non-profit Electric Power Research Institute, agrees the price of Li-ion cells only can go so low but says the opportunities to take cost out are plentiful enough.

“You will reach that (cost) floor,” he says during the GM webcast. “But if you reach that, plug-in vehicles will be as common as sliced bread.”

Depending on chemistry, battery costs could come down to as low as $250 per kWh and make EVs less expensive than their gasoline-powered counterparts, Duvall says. The Department of Energy says the current cost of a Li-ion battery is close to $1,000/kWh.

There are “thousands of dollars” still to come out of Li-ion battery costs, “and not just in Generation II – there’s another cycle in Generation III and beyond,” Posawatz says.

But even with the cost penalty dialed out, EVs will need infrastructure support if they are to proliferate in the marketplace.

Duvall says any concerns about whether the electrical grid will be able to supply power should be put to rest. An EV will draw about as much household power daily as four plasma TVs, he says, adding 10 million Volts on the road would increase electrical consumption in the U.S. only 0.8%.

“It’s unlikely vehicle loads ever will be something the industry can’t handle,” he says. “There’s no practical limit (to the number of EVs electricity suppliers could support), because the grid is constantly adapting to new loads.”

But infrastructure changes will be required. Consumers will need a clear permit path to installing 240-volt power lines for recharging EVs in their garages, employers will have to begin setting up charging stations for their workers and public charging outlets must be readily available for anyone who wants to use them.

“Providing street-level spaces is the most difficult problem,” Duvall concedes. “These are expensive, and we’re not sure how we’re going to handle it. But we know we need it, because people need the opportunity for daytime charging.”

The Volt’s Onstar system will allow 2-way communication between the car and the grid, so charging can occur automatically at a time set by the vehicle’s owner, much like an automatic sprinkler system, Posawatz says.

“Many other people are trying to put black boxes on cars or smart meters at homes,” he says. “We don’t have to wait for that.”

But a full interaction that would allow the car to choose the most optimum time for recharging based on cost and electrical grid demand won’t happen with first-generation vehicles, Duvall says.

Meanwhile, the industry is moving toward solving commonization issues to encourage proliferation of EVs.

The Society of Automotive Engineers is close to finalizing a recommended practice that will allow every vehicle in the U.S. and Canada and any other country that adopts the standard to charge off either 120- or 240-volt lines, Duvall says. His group also is working with the SAE on a protocol that would allow all vehicles to communicate with the smart grid in the identical way.

“We want the widest available access to the infrastructure,” he says. “That is absolutely the critical piece of making any of (EVs) economically and logistically feasible.”

dzoia@wardsauto.com