Detroit Auto Show: EV Wanna-Be's Revive Golf-Cart Image

Last Updated Jan 14, 2010 3:49 PM EST

The assortment of oddball, quote-unquote "electric vehicles" at this week's Detroit auto show set the cause of auto industry and consumer acceptance of electric vehicles back 20 years.

Many of the cutest, most telegenic ones, including models from CT&T, were in fact so-called Neighborhood Electric Vehicles that are legal only on certain public roads, and only at low speeds, but that was easy to miss amid the hype.

"The time is right for CT&T to come to North America and introduce its products," said a CT&T spokesman. He talked about "economies of scale," and reinventing automotive retailing, as if a new age had arrived. That's all fine, but I would argue CT&T doesn't belong in the same venue as the big-time car companies.

As far back as the Lee Iacocca reign at Chrysler, the traditional, smokestack Detroit auto industry has looked down their noses at electric vehicles as "glorified golf carts."

The poor electric-vehicle schmoes at Toyota (TM), Nissan (NSANF.PK), Honda (HMC), and yes, Chrysler, Ford (F) and General Motors have been laboring for years to live down that reputation. They must have been dismayed at sharing the worldwide stage at the Detroit show with the 2010 version of glorified golf carts.

Meanwhile, Spokane, Wash,-based Commuter Cars said at its Detroit auto show press conference on Jan. 12 that its battery-powered car was the "fastest car in the world." I thought for a second I heard wrong. It turns out they meant, the fastest in gridlock traffic. Because their car is so narrow, you can "lane-split" and drive their car between lanes! That makes driving "exciting" again!

Can you imagine the reaction if a major automaker announced its car made driving "exciting" and reduced congestion because it allowed you to drive between the lanes? Can you imagine the Trial Lawyers Association licking its chops, at the potential legal liability? Yet dozens of reporters sat there and by all appearances took it seriously.

EV and hybrid development has come a long way since Iacocca's day, coming up with real-live vehicles that within reason perform like Americans expect cars to perform. In the process, they have practically invented from scratch a whole host of materials and technologies that will benefit all cars, not just battery powered ones, with new ways to save weight and conserve or reuse energy.

I infer from the presence of so many fringe companies that it was a buyer's market for floor space at the Detroit auto show. I hope next year, the economy improves to the point where the show can afford to restrict the "auto" show to autos.

Photo: CT&T