As USA Today might say, "Okay, America, time to make up our minds!"
No more wondering, guessing, dreaming or conjecturing (someone ask Ms. Palin if that's a word); we now officially know enough about these Cars of the Future to say we love or hate them.
What else. Those generally ugly, small and uncomfortable new-fuel, high-mileage vehicles which are the Second Coming to some, the End of the Auto World As We Know It to others.
Every major and most minor carmakers now offer gas-electric hybrid models, whether conventional or the new plug-ins. And "pure EVs" are not only coming, they're here, at least in the guise of the Nissan Leaf and the soon-to-come Ford Focus and Mitsubishi i. These are exciting times for the industry, those of us who cover it and the billions worldwide who follow it and buy the product. After all, technology which has been promised, in one way shape or form or another, for the past 50 years, is now for-sale in showrooms and ready-to-drive.
Chevy Volt at one of its first media introductions in 2009 at Dodger Stadium, Los Angeles; Steve Parker photo
Yet a fundamental question still arises: is this trip really necessary? Is the re-working of the world's entire auto industry the best thing to do when gasoline-only and gas-electric hybrids are achieving impressive mileage figures for a fraction of the cost of the development of EVs? Given the long-term tepid outlook for the world economy, is the near-future the right time to force those costs down consumers' throats? Should these efforts be shut down until there's more cash flowing worldwide?
And beyond current technologies, companies from Honda to Exxon are still heavily hyping more exotic fuels and systems including hydrogen. While Nissan and other EV and plug-in hybrid makers are ambitiously working with utilities and municipalities to develop the infrastructure necessary to keep their new cars charged, filled and moving down the road anywhere in the world, the costs of an even more-advanced infrastructure for something like hydrogen fuel could dwarf what's necessary for EVs.
Toyota introduced the world's first mass-produced gas-electric hybrid car, the Prius, in Japan in 1997 and worldwide in 2001. Almost instantly and predictably, several camps of fans and haters developed. These range from "hypermilers," whose mission in life is to squeeze out every available inch of mileage from whatever fuel is powering their conveyance, to nay-sayers who claim gasoline and hybrids are achieving such high mileage figures that the investment and hype in EVs is unnecessary.
Now Prius competitors are here in large numbers, and pure EVs threaten to wrest the technology (and interest) crown from Toyota. Toyota's hegemony in the field was over the moment the doors to the Los Angeles Auto Show opened two weeks ago and the official EPA figures for the Chevrolet Volt and Nissan Leaf were announced.
Both these cars, one a true pure electric, the other an extended-range hybrid, will be on sale in various parts of the nation within the next few months. Mitsubishi i-MiEV full electric (reviewed here recently) will begin sales here in late 2011 and will be called the "i".