Detroit Auto Show Fosters Electric Car Battle Electric cars are the focus of this years show, says Jamie Kitman of Automobile Magazine. The question is — how do you make the battery viable? We explore Chinese car makers' history of overblown claims and the best electric options coming out of the U.S.
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Detroit Auto Show Fosters Electric Car Battle

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Detroit Auto Show Fosters Electric Car Battle

Detroit Auto Show Fosters Electric Car Battle

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And I'm Madeleine Brand at the Detroit auto show, and I'm standing in the GM display area with Jamie Kitman of Automobile Magazine. Hi, Jamie.

Mr. JAMIE KITMAN (New York Bureau Chief, Automobile Magazine): Hi, Madeleine.

BRAND: Jamie, you've been looking at the Chinese cars, the electric cars, and - as well as the electric cars and hybrids of the other automakers. And what do you think? What are you seeing that impresses you?

Mr. KITMAN: Well, I'm impressed that there are so many of them. It certainly is a trend at this year's show. We're seeing a lot more electric cars than we have in the past.

BRAND: A lot more. And in fact, this seems to be the focus of the Detroit auto show is electric, green.

Mr. KITMAN: I think it's one of the things that companies can do to telegraph from - at least from a public relations standpoint that they're trying to green their act up. And so it's something that they can put together fairly easily with kind of off-the-shelf stuff. Whether they actually build the cars and whether people will actually buy them, those are the questions that remain to be established.

BRAND: And I suppose the real question that a lot of the automakers are wrestling with is how to make the battery viable, how to make it go far enough, how to make it inexpensive enough.

Mr. KITMAN: Yeah. The conventional lead-acid batteries have - they kind of are at the limits of how much power they can store. So there is a drive to get this new technology of lithium-ion batteries, which are what you would have in your laptop. Unfortunately, like some laptops, every once in a while, one of the lithium-ion batteries will burst into flame or heat up - overheat itself. So that's a real issue. And there is a division thus far among the carmakers as to which battery type will prevail. The advantage of lithium-ion is it's a lot lighter - and weight is an issue in all cars - but it also has greater storage capacity.

BRAND: And talk a little bit about the Chinese car company BYD, Build Your Dreams. And they are promising to bring out a car that could go for 250 miles on a single charge. Is that possible?

Mr. KITMAN: I suppose it's possible. I haven't really examined their car in the field that much. In general, that would be, you know, probably a world-class figure if you were actually getting ranges like that. However, there is a history - and not to tarnish everyone with the same brush - but there is a history of overblown claims by Chinese carmakers about how close things are to production, whether they actually work. Sometimes they're not, you know, at the quality level that people in the rest of the developed world would expect in their cars.

BRAND: I guess the bigger question that I have here at the Detroit auto show is I've heard so much about hybrids and plug-ins and electrics, all-electric cars - everywhere I go it seems to be that's what people are talking about. Do you think that this is here to stay, or is it a kind of a flash in the pan?

Mr. KITMAN: I'd like to say that I think it's here to stay, but I've seen - I've been disappointed too many times before. I think before you're going to see a really big commitment from major car companies to building electric cars for sale in the United States, we're going to have to know more about what the Obama administration's policies are going to be with regard to tax incentives, energy prices generally, and energy supplies.

You're going to need new factories. You're going to need new engineering techniques. You're going to have to get a whole new playbook. Detroit historically has been incredibly resistant to really fundamentally changing the way they do business. To change that, it's going to - they need a little surety about where that's going to go.

BRAND: All right, Jamie, I want you to switch hats a little, because you're not only an expert on automobiles. You're a band manager. And you manage They Might Be Giants. And they have a song that's particularly applicable now.

Mr. KITMAN: It's coming out in the fall. It's called "Electric Car."

BRAND: "Electric Car." Let's hear it.

(Soundbite of song "Electric Car")

THEY MIGHT BE GIANTS: (Singing) Let's take a ride in an electric car. To the West Side in an electric car. How can you deny an electric car? Won't you take a ride with me? Come on and take a ride with me...

BRAND: That's They Might Be Giants with their new song, "Electric Car." At the Detroit auto show in Detroit, I'm Madeleine Brand.


If you'd like to see photos from the Detroit auto show and read about Madeleine's adventures there, go to our blog. It's

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