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Detroit auto show – electrified

01/13/2010

The buzz at the North American Auto Show in Detroit this week seems to be the quiet hum of the electric motor. In previous years, electric cars and other highly fuel efficient cars were relegated to corners and treated like science fiction fantasy. But this year, in the wake of a disastrous year for the auto industry, companies are locked in a race to show who can bring a marketable electric car to market.

Electric cars could put us on a path to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from personal transportation, but there are still some questions that need answering.

A big one is batteries. How big are they? How much will they weigh? How much will they cost? Own versus lease? There’s no right answer, so it appears that automakers are trying on a few different ideas. Nissan, for example, proposes to keep the retail cost of its all-electric Leaf low by leasing batteries to buyers, rather than selling them. This may prove attractive to consumers, or it may cause anxiety.

Another is about charging. How long will it take to charge these cars? Where can I plug it in? When should I charge it? But while there are some infrastructure hurdles, they are not insurmountable. Some cities are contemplating refitting parking meters to function as charging stations, so urban street parkers – who would be good candidates for electric vehicles – may be able to plug in without a garage. But by far, the biggest question is when to charge. Overnight charging is best, as there is a supply of electricity that is not typically used. This cuts down on waste at electric power plants as well as preventing the need for new electric generation capacity from electric cars.

It’s certainly a sign of the times that electric vehicles are capturing much of the attention while the 500 horsepower, 17 mile-per-gallon Mustang gets glossed over. Chris Paine, the director of “Who Killed the Electric Car?” which discusses the abandonment of General Motors electric vehicle program may have put it best – it’s “Revenge of the Electric Car.”

Lena Pons is a transportation policy analyst for Public Citizen.

Flickr photo by Corvair Owner.

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