PARIS – Hybridizing light vehicles with lithium-ion batteries and even developing electric-range cars soon will make good economic sense, says the French research organization IFP.

The IFP calculates a small diesel-powered family car, such as a Volkswagen Golf or Peugeot 207, costs about E15,000 ($21,500) and with fuel and maintenance will cost about E29,000 ($41,523) over its 124,000-mile (200,000-km) lifetime.

Making a plug-in hybrid of such a car and giving it a 16-mile (25-km) range on batteries, alone, adds about E6,000 ($8,591) to the cost. But the lifetime cost of ownership is only about E30,000 ($42,953) because electricity is cheaper energy than fuel and hybridization cuts fuel consumption as much as 40%.

“Adding electric motors to cars is not a panacea, but it will help reduce CO2 (carbon-dioxide emissions),” says Olivier Appert, director of the IFP, at a conference here focused on emissions reduction. He notes the new Toyota Prius produces 89 g/km of CO2, the equivalent of 63 mpg (3.7 L/100 km).

However, hybridizing does not improve fuel economy for over-the-road truck transportation, he says. Instead, fuel efficiency in that sectormust come from aerodynamics, transmissions and engines.

At the current price of diesel fuel and Li-ion batteries, electric vehicles don’t make economic sense over their lifetime, says Philippe Pinchon, director of the IFP’s motor and energy research center.

The lifetime cost of a Golf-sized EV with a 93-mile (150-km) range would be about E37,000 ($52,834),the IFP says. Even the E5,000 ($7,140) bonus from France for buying an EV would not make up that difference.

However, in a few years that picture could change, Pinchon says. Today, fuel in France costs about E1.10 ($1.57) per liter, and Li-ion lithium batteries are E600 ($859) per kW/h.

When diesel fuel returns to E1.50 ($2.15) per liter, as it was here when oil was E105 ($150) a barrel, and when batteries cost E300 ($429) kW/h, which is the 5-year target of battery companies, the lifetime cost of a diesel-powered car would be about E33,000 ($47,229), while the electric car would cost E30,000 ($42,953).

Petroleum prices will go up again, Pinchon says, not only due to rising demand in emerging countries such as China and India, but also because the current economic crisis has delayed investments in new refining capacity.

However, a massive change to EVs inspired by economics will not have a major effect on CO2 production everywhere.

In France, where most electricity is generated by nuclear power, a battery-powered car would be responsible for only about 15 g/km of CO2. But in India, where all electricity is generated by coal, an EV would emit about 160 g/km, compared with 130 g/km for the same-sized diesel car.

China certainly will have EVs. The government has made a point of encouraging the production and sale of hybrids and electric cars. BYD Auto Co. Ltd., the company Warren Buffett invested in, is the first auto maker in the world to have a plug-in hybrid on the road.

However, the Chinese electric grid is not efficient, Appert says, noting the 2004 spike in oil prices was caused in large part by China’s inability to furnish electricity to factories, which then imported petroleum to run their own generators.

And because 90% of Chinese electricity is generated by coal, EVs won’t diminish CO2 production related to transportation. However, hybrids will result in CO2 savings by improving internal-combustion-engine performance and by regenerative braking.

The IFP, which began life as an organization dedicated to creating a French oil industry, now spends considerable resources on alternative fuels and powertrains.

It is part of a European project called Optfuel, developing second-generation biofuels, and it has developed with Renault SA and PSA Peugeot Citroen a digital platform for analyzing entire hybrid vehicles.

IFP also is a partner in a new physical test facility being developed in Versailles for electric and hybrid vehicles.

All the same, says Appert, efficiency of traditional engines still can be improved 20% to 30%, and “internal combustion will be around for decades.”