Commentary

We must think seriously about electric cars. General Motors and Toyota both are publicly committed to building plug-in hybrid-electric vehicles, which are supposed to run purely on electric power for up to 40 miles (64 km). Renault promises to build an electric car for a project to turn Israel into the first E-car nation.

And the buff books are going wild over the $100,000 Tesla pure electric roadster. It used up most of the battery charge in only 97 miles (156 km) in one test, but I would assume the driving was what we would expect from auto writers: hard and fast.

The idea behind PHEVs is that 40 miles is close to the typical driver’s daily commute. So while there still is a gasoline motor on board, most of the everyday driving is with electric power.

The vision of E-cars for Israel is that limited range is okay, because it is a small country. Denmark is small, too, but a car from Copenhagen could be driven to Spain or Turkey. Israeli electric cars are, for the most part, stuck in Israel.

Tesla dreams of becoming a great car company by building E-cars. It seems unlikely, but remember, IBM also once laughed at Apple and Microsoft when they were little startups.

Does it all make sense?

Lithium-ion battery packs still have to be proven. They are expensive, maybe $4,000 to $10,000, although no one has ever given me a definitive price. But they have to last as long as the car to make sense. The Toyota Prius’ batteries last forever because they have an easy duty cycle: They don’t run far at all under only electric power. But that won’t be true for PHEVs. And we don’t want them to heat up like those in our cell phones and laptops.

Of course, we have to start somewhere. Be it fear of global warming or fear of oil slavery, we have to start. But it’s hard to believe electric cars and trucks can succeed in high volumes without powerful government support and high taxes on conventional gas-guzzlers. This is a democracy. People probably would not stand for it.

Tesla hopes to eventually offer a whole line of cars. Its initial roadsters are off a Lotus platform and to be built at the Lotus plant in Britain.

Renault promises to have a removable battery pack, so it can be replaced in 10 minutes when run down. The idea is to have 500,000 recharging spots in Israel, which sounds like a huge investment considering how slowly the switch to electric cars will take place.

It’s worth remembering the fuel-cell concept is for an electric car, too. It could be we are at the beginning of a big change. Yet despite the entry of giants such as General Motors, Toyota and Renault, I would say this is the beginning of the beginning. It might take 20 years or 40 years to learn if the E-car is here for good and electricity will be the dominant fuel for our cars.

I’ll never get to say, “Charge her up!” at a filling station. My children won’t. My grandchildren? Maybe someday, and maybe their children will.

Jerry Flint is a columnist for, and former senior editor of, Forbes magazine.