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GM pledges to develop plug-in hybrid

Automakers said that in the next few years they will put more vehicles on American roads that burn less gasoline - or don't use it at all.

At the 2007 Los Angeles Auto Show, General Motors pledged it would make plug-in hybrids, ultraefficient gas-electric cars that can be filled at gas stations or charged at home. However, GM chairman and chief executive Rick Wagoner didn't say when they'd arrive or how many the company would make.

Wagoner's pledge, making GM the first automaker to commit to producing high-mileage, plug-in gas-electric hybrids, didn't have a specific timetable. "It's pretty clear it will take several years," he said.

Tom Libby, senior director of industry analysis for researcher J.D. Power and Associates, applauded GM's announcement, but noted Wagoner had "not made that many commitments."

Libby said most consumers see Toyota and Honda as the automakers with the best environmental sensibilities. "General Motors wants to get that image with Toyota and Honda," he said.

GM said its first plug-in hybrid will be based on the 2008 Saturn VUE, a redesigned crossover-utility vehicle that goes on sale next year. In fact, the VUE eventually will be sold in three hybrid versions: as the Green Line that uses a mild hybrid system, as a vehicle that uses GM's more efficient two-mode hybrid system, and as a plug-in hybrid.

Hybrid vehicles, including the popular Toyota Prius, use electric motors and batteries as well as a gasoline engine to achieve fuel-economy gains.

A plug-in hybrid would need larger, more sophisticated batteries, most likely lithium-ion batteries. It could be charged at home, and would result in "significant" fuel economy gains, Wagoner said.