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The Nissan Leaf electric car. (The Canadian Press)
The Nissan Leaf electric car. (The Canadian Press)

Green Highway

The electric vehicle scramble Add to ...

It's all been pure coincidence, of course.

Auto makers from Toyota Motor to General Motors, from China's BYD to Germany's Daimler AG have all been singing from the electric vehicle song sheet in recent days. Oh, and in case you missed it, global delegates are also talking emissions regulations in Copenhagen.

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As I said, a coincidence.

The auto industry, from established companies like Toyota and Daimler, to emerging ones like BYD and start-ups like Karma, is keen to tell its "green" car story and it's a good one. So yesterday, Toyota said it would begin selling "affordable" plug-in hybrid cars in 2011. Toyota plans to challenge GM, the Renault-Nissan alliance and others for leadership in of rechargeable cars.

Speaking of Nissan, the LEAF electric car made its Canadian debut in Vancouver yesterday, kicking off the Nissan LEAF Zero Emission tour. The LEAF will first be sold in British Columbia to fleet buyers such as the City of Vancouver and B.C. Hydro. To mark the LEAF's arrival, many government and corporate officials were there, though not Mayor Gregor Robertson who expanded his carbon footprint by attending the Copenhagen Climate Summit.

As the summiters were summitting, Daimler announced the start of a pilot program for its electric Smart minicar in China next year. The German auto maker joins a growing list of car companies testing so-called clean-energy vehicles in China, the world's biggest new car market.

"We have to see the acceptance of this car," Ulrich Walker, chairman of Daimler Northeast Asia, told Dow Jones. "Who are the target groups? What kind of infrastructure do we need?"

China is the world's biggest polluter, but to its credit, the central government there last week said it would subsidize private purchases of alternative-energy vehicles in five cities. The Chinese auto maker BYD Co., part-owned by one of billionaire Warren Buffett's many companies, says government subsidies are key if pricey alternative-energy vehicles are to be feasible in China on a large scale for consumers and producers.

BYD, not surprisingly, plans to market all-electric battery cars and plug-in hybrids - and not just in China, either. Just days ago, a senior BYD executive told the Wall Street Journal that the Los Angeles area will likely be the lead market for the electric car BYD plans to start selling in the U.S. late next year. Los Angeles has a shot at becoming BYD's U.S. headquarters, too.

A week ago, GM used the L.A. Auto Show to announce that it will focus on California for the launch of the Chevrolet Volt, the company's extended range electric vehicle. Vice Chairman Bob Lutz said GM will provide 100 Volts to California utility companies in early 2011. As the year progresses, production will reach 8,000 to 10,000 Volts. Starting the following year, GM expects to built and sell 50,000-60,000 Volts annually.

Not only that, GM also said it would invest $336-million in its Detroit-Hamtramck assembly plant to begin production of the Volt in 2010 (all figures in U.S. dollars). The plant initially will also build Opel and Vauxhall variants of the Ampera electric car for Europe. GM said this brings the company's combined Volt-related investments in Michigan to $700-million.

GM will build the Volt and its sister vehicle, the Ampera, in Michigan. The car's lithium-ion battery pack will also be manufactured in Michigan, as will the Volt's 1.4-litre engine-generator, though initial supplies will be imported.

"We expect the Detroit-Hamtramck plant will be the first facility in the U.S. owned by a major auto maker to produce an electric car. It is the hub for the wheel that we began rolling in 2007 when the Volt debuted at the (Detroit motor show)," said GM vice-president of global product planning Jon Lauckner.

Have we mentioned the Fisker Karma plug-in electric hybrid sedan yet? It will be ready for dealer deliveries by September 2010, the company promised at the Los Angeles auto show. This ambitious timetable has been laid out despite the fact emissions and crash-testing approvals have yet to be obtained for the Karma.

Russell Datz, a Fisker spokesman, said computer simulations are under way, but "Final approval for the crash testing won't come until we can provide two models to actually be crashed. We don't have two models to spare for that yet." The $89,000 sports sedan is being built in Finland, although the privately owned company is headquartered in Irvine, Calif.

Meanwhile in Great Britain, Mitsubishi Motors is testing its i-MiEV electric car - a vehicle on the cusp of full volume production - in Britain's West Midlands. The car is the first zero emissions, fully electric city car to be used in the British government-funded Technology Strategy Board user trials. This is the first stage of a government-supported, UK-wide project to test electric and ultra low emission vehicles in real-world use.

And on and on and on. To be truthful, this flurry of announcements has not been a coincidence at all. The auto industry, seeing that politicians and policy makers, regulators and diplomats are all now riding the electric car bandwagon, timed their latest pronouncements to coincide with the Copenhagen talks.

While I am a bit cynical about the processes at work here, the endgame has real promise. The new technologies being developed in the electric-car race are forcing auto makers to be more creative than they've been in the last 100 years. This race will form the basis of an industry shakeout that will have long and widespread implications.

I'd like to be more optimistic about Canada's prospects in all this, but I am not. Our federal government has been woefully reluctant to develop a clear and comprehensive energy policy for the nation - one that takes into account what is happening in the alternative fuel/electric car technology race. As a result, the provinces are developing their own ad-hoc plans. It's no way to run a country in a race for jobs with the likes of the United States, China, Great Britain, France, Japan and Germany.

And make no mistake, many, many good jobs are at stake here. Management consulting firm PRTM says that the "tipping point" in world-wide acceptance of electric vehicles will come within the next few years. By 2020, the so-called "value-chain" associated with the still-nascent global electric vehicle industry is likely to be worth $300-billion or more. More than one million EV-related jobs are at stake here.

We are not only looking at new jobs at auto makers, but also at energy providers, smart grid technology firms, battery and component suppliers and various service providers. Many of these are highly desirable, high-paying, high-tech jobs.

In a report from www.just-auto.com, Oliver Hazimeh, director at PRTM and head of the firm's global E-mobility practice, said this week that "the EV industry will probably serve as an accelerator for the scaling of the entire 'clean tech' sector world-wide, given the inherent size of the automotive industry."

Alas, while provincial governments in Ontario and British Columbia have grown increasingly aggressive at recognizing what is happening here, Ottawa appears to be ignoring the trend almost entirely. This puts the Conservative government completely out of sync with many other governments in both the developed and developing world.

The U.S. Congress, for instance, has approved tax breaks of up to $7,500 for electric vehicles like the Volt. President Barack Obama is another enthusiastic backer of electric vehicles. His administration awarded $2.4-billion in cash grants in August to spur electric vehicle and battery improvements. President Obama wants one million plug-in electric vehicles on U.S. roads by 2015. Prime Minister Stephen Harper, by contrast, has said virtually nothing on the subject at all.

From Ottawa, the sound of silence on energy policy, on the electric and alternative fuel vehicle race, is deafening. But ignoring these developments won't make them go away.

After all, just last week, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency declared tailpipe emissions a threat to public health. This move cleared the way for tough new limits on emissions starting in the 2012 model year.

So the Americans are all over this, and so are the Brits, the Chinese, the French, the Germans and the Japanese to name just a few. In Canada, the federal government isn't even talking about electric cars in any serious way.

Incredible. If the opposition had any sense, it would seize the "green" initiative here.

Follow on Twitter: @catocarguy


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