Yesterday I stalked filmmaker Chris Paine, General Motors vice-chairman Bob Lutz and Elon Musk, chief executive of Tesla Motors as they strolled the floor of the Detroit auto show.
Green-tinged conspiracy theorists know Paine as the producer of the documentary Who Killed the Electric Car?. Word rippled through the show that he is producing a sequel called The Revenge of the Electric Car" and that GM is working with the filmmaker.
GM would like some positive press from the likes of Paine, whose movie accused the auto maker of being a prime suspect in the death of the electric vehicle back in the 1990s. How things change. GM is now in the EV business, readying the Chevrolet Volt EV for sale this year. Buyers need to be found and one way to root them out is to create some healthy EV buzz with the likes of Paine.
Musk, meanwhile, is flogging his company's EVs. At this year's Tesla booth, visitors saw a white Roadster Sport reportedly driven from California to the show, along with a 2012 Model S sedan slated for production within two years. Price: $57,400 (US).
All this at an auto show loaded with companies pushing the idea of electric cars - pushing their ideas about electric cars. Tesla and GM represent bookends in the EV race.
Big, old GM has found the electric car religion and now never misses a chance to promote the Volt and other versions of it such as the Cadillac Converj. Tesla, young and small - Tesla only started selling its EV Roadster in 2008 - is a Silicon Valley start-up originally funded by dot-com investors.
What GM and Tesla have in common is they are now both operating on government money. GM has its bailout fund and Tesla was recently awarded about half a billion dollars by the U.S. Government to continue its work developing EVs. This, apparently, is free enterprise in the electric car era.
Of course, the U.S. Government isn't the only one offering cash to EV makers. China is also actively supporting the EV initiatives of its auto industry and here in Detroit a number of Chinese EV makes were on hand, including BYD. You know BYD, right? Billionaire Warren Buffett has put millions in the company.
Here in Detroit, many auto makers have invested great energy into promoting their EVs, along with hybrid gas-electric cars and fuel cell vehicles. Most won't be available to paying customers for years. And those slated for sale in the short term will be sold in very small numbers at the outset.
Nonetheless, you'd be hard-pressed to find an auto executive of any company -- large or small, new or old -- who does not agree that the future of the car business is in the electrification of vehicles.
Green cars will help auto makers meet future emissions regulations and they offer an answer to troubling questions from the likes of filmmaker Paine and anyone else who likes the idea of shedding our dependency on oil and other carbon-based fuels.
Lost in the hype, however, is the fact that according to the research firm IHS Global Insight, hybrids are less than three per cent of the market and have remained at three per cent for years and years.
It may not seem so, but because of a myriad of issues with batteries, the industry faces a huge leap in going from hybrids to full EVs - and the public has not yet accepted hybrids in significant numbers.
That did not prevent Toyota from announcing a whole family of hybrids that will be sold under the Prius brand. A production version of Toyota's FT-CH concept will be part of that family.
Toyota officials continue to insist that hybrids will become the core technology of the auto industry. As if to support that notion, Honda showed its latest hybrid, the CR-Z coupe. It will go on sale in a few months.
As for battery-powered cars, this show is stuffed with them. EV central is a placed called "Electric Avenue." There, visitors will find EVs clustered together, from the forthcoming Nissan Leaf to something called the Tango ($85,000 US) from a newcomer called Commuter Cars.
The EV movement is in its infancy, but it has momentum. Car makers suggest that they need to get serious about EVs today if they are to become mainstream by the time the 2020 Detroit auto show rolls around.
So the clock is ticking. In fact, it almost seemed as though Paine, Lutz and Musk could hear its "tick-tock-tick-tock" as they wandered down Electric Avenue.
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