Automakers are gambling that there's a market for electric-power cars, even as gas prices drop.
At the opening of the North American International Auto Show here on Sunday, General Motors GM, Ford Motor F and Chrysler unveiled concepts and future production vehicles powered primarily by plug-in batteries. And a Toyota executive said it will bring such electric cars to the U.S. in 2012.
But the billions being poured into technology could be for naught if gas stays below $3 a gallon.
"All of that becomes very, very difficult to sell in a world of cheap gasoline," says Bob Lutz, GM vice chairman of global product development. "We cannot have the world's most fuel-efficient vehicle park and … the world's cheapest gasoline."
Still, automakers' support has been mixed for higher gas prices to boost demand for fuel efficiency. High-tech powertrains and batteries for electric cars are expensive. A typical hybrid vehicle is about $3,000 more than a comparable gas model; it's unclear how much more a purely electric car would cost. GM's small Chevy Volt, due in 2010, will go 40 miles on a charge and has a small motor to recharge on the move, but could cost $40,000.
Ford plans include an all-electric-only four-door sedan in 2011 that can go 100 miles on a charge. Ford says most people drive less than 40 miles a day and doesn't expect it to be a driver's only car.
GM unveiled an upscale version of the Volt system, the Cadillac Converj concept car. Chrysler showed four in its lineup of electric concept cars, one of which will be sold in 2010.
Toyota said it will begin selling small, battery-operated city cars in the U.S. in 2012. Improved batteries and weight- and cost-saving methods could allow larger cars that run on batteries only, it said.
Even the Chinese want a foothold here with electrics: BYD Auto showed a battery-power sedan it says it could bring to the U.S. in two years.
Will demand be there when such cars arrive? For example, the hybrid Toyota Prius often sold for more than sticker price when gas prices topped $4 a gallon this summer. In December, with gas prices below $2, Prius sales fell 44.7%.
Gas prices do "have a significant effect" on consumer behavior, says Mike Omotoso, senior manager of powertrain forecasting for J.D. Power. Still, he sees gas prices continuing to rise.