smart fortwo (© Sean Frego)Click to enlarge picture

At a cost of $35,000, the all-electric smart car will be more than twice the price of the recently Americanized gasoline version.

Walk into a Wal-Mart in the not-too-distant future and among the thousands of products for sale will be an electric car. It will not be a remote control car, a golf cart or a little scooter to help granny cruise the aisles. The battery-powered automobile will look every bit like a MINI Cooper. This is because it will be a MINI Cooper, just with a powerful electric motor under the hood and a stack of lithium batteries where the gas tank used to be.

The company responsible for transforming the already-efficient MINI into a zero-emissions electric vehicle (EV) is Hybrid Technologies. At its factory in Mooresville, North Carolina, engineers pull the internal combustion guts from cars such as the Chrysler Crossfire, PT Cruiser, smart fortwo, and the MINI, endowing them with advanced electric powerplants. While several other well-funded startups are racing to build electric cars from scratch, Hybrid Technologies has taken a different line of attack, converting already popular models to battery power.

To Richard Griffiths, the founder and prolific spokesman for Hybrid Technologies, the goal is not to try and sell people on the idea of an electric vehicle, but rather to show them how much fun they can have in electric versions of their favorite cars. Griffiths wants people to start thinking of battery power as a kind of high-end option, like a convertible top or a navigation system.

"You'll find that whatever great looking vehicle is launched next year, more than likely we'll begin production on that vehicle," Griffiths explains. At $65,000 for the MINI, electric power makes for one hefty option. But the appeal is undeniable, as actor George Clooney and singer James Blunt are enthusiastic drivers of Hybrid Technologies conversions.

Power to the People — Who Can Afford It
Hybrid Technologies plans to make 2008 the year that its cars become available to consumers first through Wal-Mart and then directly. When the all-electric smart car hits the market it will cost $35,000, more than twice the price of the recently Americanized gasoline version. For the time being there is no shortage of customers. NASA, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the U.S. Military all buy alternative-fueled vehicles for their fleets (part of a Congressional mandate from the Clinton years) and have purchased EVs from Hybrid Technologies.

Working with the military is also a natural fit. Hybrid Technologies started out five years ago helping the military with watercraft and submarine power systems and now provides electric PT Cruisers for base transportation. Griffiths won't hint at what other sort of projects Hybrid Technologies is building for the military, except to say that since EVs are almost silent they lend themselves to clandestine applications.

The Factory in Reverse
The Hybrid Technologies plant in Mooresville, North Carolina, looks much the way any auto factory should look. Except here, almost as many motors are being pulled out of cars as are being put in. Hybrid Technologies and smart share a core relationship, so for its electric version of the fortwo, Hybrid Technologies obtains what are called "gliders" intact cars without engines or gas tanks.

For cars such as the Crossfire and PT Cruiser, the motor and other systems are stripped out and sold back to the automaker or others. By building off existing models, Hybrid Technologies gets to focus on the critical part of any electric car the battery system.

Letting carmakers foot the bill for crash testing is another welcome advantage. The smart fortwo, with its steel safety cell, has been approved by the USDOT. Nevertheless, Hybrid Technologies is working with the Canadian government to crash test fully electric Smart cars for further validation. "At the end of the day," says Griffiths, "you can keep a fairly large portion of the vehicle consistent with the original OEM, which does allow us a lot more freedom to put our money into the technology as opposed to into the design."

Paving the Way
Not since General Motors leased out the now-legendary EV1 ten years ago has a large automaker put an all-electric car on the road. With electric cars predominantly in the territory of government contracts and industrious do-it-yourselfers, Hybrid Technologies exists in the gap between the big guns and the hobbyists.

According to Griffiths, automakers are biding their time and waiting for the dust to settle before making big moves toward alternative energies. Companies like his may be paving the way, with Toyota and General Motors poised to swoop in when the public decides its alternative car of choice. In the meantime, Hybrid Technologies is busy developing a product it hopes is "bulletproof." Noting that reliability is paramount in building confidence in these new electric vehicles, Griffiths adds, "You get one shot at it."

Jacob Gordon is a freelance writer, a blogger for TreeHugger.com, and producer of TreeHugger Radio. He can be reached at jacob@treehugger.com.

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