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Paris Motor Show reveals industry’s electric obsession

The recently concluded Paris Motor Show showcased the industry’s newfound obsession with all-electric and electric hybrid vehicles. I am neither a) a car guy, nor b) particularly turned on by Jetsons-inspired concept cars, so I can only offer the most outsider-y thoughts:

**Thought 1: this is real**

Electrics are no longer being touted as some sort of green window dressing. And the driving factor isn’t gasoline prices. It’s batteries.

> “We have just in the past couple of months become comfortable about a method of making lithium batteries for cars,” Moos said. “Now some people are starting to quote Obama: Yes, we can.”

> Both Mercedes-Benz and BMW unveiled full-size luxury hybrid production models with lithium batteries: the S400 BlueHybrid and the 7-Series hybrid, respectively…

> “This is just the beginning,” Zetsche said. “With this technology, we can hybridize all of our models in rapid succession. This car proves Mercedes will be able to downsize its emissions without downsizing its products.”

Until recently, engineering constraints put green vehicles in a pretty tight box. Those constraints haven’t disappeared entirely, but they’ve loosened to the point that carmakers have begun to speak confidently and put real muscle behind their plans.

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For $500,000 you can have an an all-electric vehicle with gull-wing doors and motors in its wheels. Hotcha! Image courtesy of Jalopnik.

**Thought 2: the Chevy Volt may have a tough slog**

GM’s big bet, the Chevy Volt, has won praise for managing its engineering tradeoffs with relative deftness. At $40,000 the car is expensive, but not Tesla expensive. The 40-mile range on battery-power alone is just enough that many owners may never have to hit a gas station.

But all the cleverness in the world doesn’t guarantee the car will find a market. The industry is about to cough up a pretty wild diversity of electrics — even Lamborghini is threatening to get in on the act. The problem for GM isn’t that they’ve done anything wrong. It’s just plain hard to hit a bullseye in this sort of environment. Markets shift; technology jumps; gas prices bounce; the economy stumbles. Who knows what cars people will be buying in three years?

Against this backdrop, though, low-priced hybrids sure seem like a safer bet.

> Honda’s new Prius-fighter, the Insight, due in the U.S. next spring, uses an evolution of the company’s Integrated Motor Assist technology. The car, expected to be priced at about $19,000 (thousands less than a Prius), won’t be able to move under its own electrical power and so isn’t a candidate for plug-in adaptation.

Honda and Toyota have been quite cautious on the topic of plug-in hybrids. Honda and Toyota have also crushed the competition by building efficient cars that people like to drive. I’m inclined to trust their instincts.

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The Honda Insight: stolid, unremarkable, affordable, and almost certain to take over the industry. Photo courtesy of Jalopnik.

**Thought 3: why aren’t there more cute cars on the road?**

I’m a little surprised that we haven’t seen more of a “cute” aesthetic in American automobiles. There has to be a substantial minority of car-buyers out there who, like me, don’t know what torque is. I rented a Smart Car in Europe and thought it was pretty awesome. The new Volkswagen Beetle and Mini Cooper seemed to demonstrate the existence of a market for smaller cars with more personality. The ascendant Apple design aesthetic is all about rounded corners and seamless surfaces. The advent of a new carbon consciousness and $4-per-gallon gasoline should make people more eager than ever to get their hands on an anti-Hummer.

Such as this all-electric hatchback from Pininfarina. Honestly, just saying the word “Pininfarina” makes me smile. Also, it has a range of 153 miles, and apparently it’s going into production in 2009.

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Awwwww! Photo courtesy of, you guessed it, Jalopnik.



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