If it’s true that it takes a crisis to force change then the US car manufacturing sector understands this better than anyone. Detroit has undergone a renaissance in the wake of the global economic and financial meltdown, broadening their offerings to include more fuel efficient passenger vehicles, hybrid models and electric cars.

“We are experiencing technological changes in automobiles that I have not seen in my lifetime,” said Ford Motor Company Chairman Bill Ford at a recent reception to promote Ford’s partnership with sustainability innovator SHFT.com. AOL Huffington Post is also a founding partner of the site.

The plug-in electric Ford Focus is one of the pillars supporting the company’s “Power of Choice” campaign that seeks to offer multiple power train options for different driving profiles. The company is launching a suite of high efficiency vehicles including a full hybrid, plug-in hybrid electric and an all-electric vehicle. The Focus Electric is available now and Breaking Energy recently took one for a test drive.

Despite some New York City traffic, the car drove nicely, was extremely quiet and featured surprising acceleration. The technology delivers energy from the battery directly to the motor, with none of the revving associated with traditional internal combustion engines, which accounts for the rapid acceleration. Aside from the quietness and noticeable pick-up, the experience was very similar to driving a normal car.

Comparing Apples to Oranges, or Motors to Engines

Efficiency and fuel cost savings are some of the primary reasons for purchasing an electric vehicle, but comparing energy efficiency between an EV and a gasoline engine requires some creativity as well as math. So the US Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Energy teamed up to generate a new comparative metric: Miles per gallon equivalent, which tells you how much gasoline and how much electricity would be used to generate an equal amount of power.

One gallon of gasoline is equal to 33 kilowatt-hours of electricity and additional information including side-by-side comparisons of four currently-available passenger EV’s can be found here.

The Focus all-electric boasts 110 MPGe city and 99 MPGe highway, with city driving resulting in superior range because the car’s battery recharges during braking. The vehicle’s effective range between charges is an average of 76 miles – considerably less than most gasoline vehicles which typically can travel roughly 500 miles before needing to refuel.

However, the average US car consumer – estimated to account for about 60 percent of the US population – drives about 25 to 30 miles per day, Eric Keuhn, Ford’s Chief Engineer of their Global Electrified Programs told Breaking Energy.

The vehicle retails for $39,925 and with various tax credits offered for EV purchases, the cost can be brought down to about $29,000, said Keuhn. The cost of the electricity required to fully recharge the battery is about $2 to $3, based on an electricity price assumption of 10 cents/ kwh.

Efficiency charging allows a user to pre-set when the vehicle charges in order to take advantage of lower off-peak power prices. Kuehn estimated this could be as low as 3 cents/kwh, depending on regional power price fluctuations. The average retail price of electricity in the United States in 2010 was 9.88 cents per/kwh, according to the Energy Information Administration.

Tackling the Range Challenge

EV’s limited range compared with fossil fuel-powered vehicles continues to be one of the major barriers to wider adoption. But IBM and its recently-announced partners – Central Glass and Asahi Kasei – are developing an innovative approach to battery technology that seeks to design a battery that can power a family car for 500 miles on a single charge, thus matching a tank of gasoline.

“These new partners share our vision of electric cars being critical components of building a cleaner, better world, which is far less dependent on oil,” said Dr. Winfried Wilcke, IBM’s Principle Investigator who initiated the Battery 500 Project.

Launched in 2009, the Battery 500 Project is working on lithium-air batteries that have higher energy density than lithium-ion batteries, due to their lighter cathodes and the fact that their primary “fuel” is the oxygen readily available in the atmosphere, IBM explained in a press release.

Check back shortly with Breaking Energy to learn more about lithium-air battery technology in a guest-contributed article by Dr. Wilcke.