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We need electric cars sooner, not later

There's nothing I'd like better than to commute to work, thumb my nose at conventional gas stations and tool around the Tampa Bay area in a "real" car — not some lame golf cart — running on rechargeable battery power.

If you believe the "buzz" of all the electric vehicle introductions and promises coming out of the Detroit Auto Show now under way, you'd think we're only a year or two away from electric paradise — and a significant step closer to energy independence.

Alas, we're not even close. But it's about time the auto industry started focusing on developing electric vehicles people might afford and want to buy. Detroit's emerging from a Rip Van Winkle nap lasting 20 years when its most progressive mandate was to lobby against higher fuel-efficiency standards.

Now nearly every major automaker has either revealed electric cars or plans to build them. They better do something. New auto sales fell off a cliff last year, dropping 25.6 percent in the Tampa Bay area in 2008 from 2007.

Now a cynic might think automakers cobbled together last-minute press events at the Detroit Auto Show to show a skeptical Congress there really is an electric vehicle agenda. Even if a truly price-competitive, distance-worthy electric automobile is years away.

But I want an electric vehicle, for many reasons, so personal hope springs eternal. The Detroit Auto Show does not even open to the public until this weekend, but the industry and automotive press have been churning press releases and news reports out all week. Most of it is about plug-in vehicles.

Until now, the Chevy Volt's received the most attention. More important, GM just announced it will build lithium-ion batteries for its Volt right there in Michigan. Economically devastated Michigan glommed onto this notion so we're already hearing names like "Lithium Valley" (like Silicon Valley, get it?) or "Electric Avenue" to reflect the state's wish to become the battery capital of America.

But the Detroit show this week is awash in competition. Here's just a sample:

• Ford plans to join with Canadian parts supplier Magna International to offer a battery-powered car about the size of the Ford Focus by 2011 that can travel up to 100 miles per charge.

• Toyota, a hybrid leader with its Prius models, unveiled the tiny FTEV — Future Toyota Electric Vehicle — with plans to start selling it in this country in 2012.

• The Smart Fortwo has an electric version that could start shipping by 2010.

Big hurdles remain. Despite Detroit going hat in hand to Washington in search of a temporary bailout, it's unclear if the industry can really do something besides reintroduce nostalgic muscle cars from the '60s and '70s.

Lower gas prices will slow consumer acceptance of high-priced electric cars, though some states are talking about raising taxes on gasoline.

And we have not even talked about infrastructure. How do you "refuel" your electric vehicle away from your home's outlet? In some places like San Jose, Calif., parking spaces exist (with outlets) that are reserved for electric cars. In Tampa, a new business called NovaCharge wants to sell similar products to recharge cars in public spaces.

It's all coming — unless Rip Van Winkle rolls over for another 20-year slumber.

We need electric cars sooner, not later 01/14/09 [Last modified: Thursday, January 15, 2009 12:33pm]
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