Detroit Auto Show Gets off to an Electrifying Start

VIDEO: With gas prices rising, the theme of this year?s show is electric cars.
WATCH Ford Electrifies the Detroit Auto Show

Electricity is in the air at the Detroit Auto Show.

Ford showed off four new vehicles including one that is completely electric, and two others that will combine electric power and a gas engine. Today, GM's plug-in hybrid, Volt, won North American Car of the Year. Last month, it was named Motor Trends' Car of the Year.

Meanwhile, foreign automaker Porsche tried to grab the alternative vehicle spotlight from the domestic automakers, by unveiling a hybrid racecar, the 918 RSR, at 6:30am … before the show officially opened for two days of media previews.

Ford revealed three variations of a compact minivan called the C-Max that will go on sale next year: A seven-passenger version that runs on a gas engine, and two five-passenger hybrid versions. Though the company took the wraps off its battery-powered Focus last week, that car was also prominently displayed today in Detroit and may in fact be the star of the show.

The Focus becomes the first mass-produced electric car from a U.S. automaker and with it, says Executive Chairman Bill Ford in an exclusive interview with ABC News, the company has "taken a big bet". Referring to its new, electrified lineup of cars, Ford said "These are very much about signaling where this company is headed and frankly where this country ought to be headed."

To understand what kind of gamble the automaker is taking, consider that electric cars and hybrids combined, have only a 2-and-a-half percent share of the car market in this country, and that number is down from last year. Auto trends forecaster J.D. Power and Associates predicts that share will reach only about 10% by 2020.

New Cars Get Big Tax Breaks

Furthermore, charging stations for electric cars do not exactly dot the landscape in this country. And electric cars like the Ford Focus only have a range of about 100 miles per charge, limiting them to drivers with shorter commutes. Before these cars can become widely popular, Bill Ford concedes "we're going to need ubiquity of charging at the mall, at the doctor's office and at the place of work."

But the automakers are getting both pressure and help from government to step up production of electric and hybrid cars. Higher federal fuel economy standards mean the companies must produce more fuel-efficient vehicles. Along with that "stick" is the "carrot" of tax breaks for consumers: Buyers of electric or hybrid cars can deduct $7,500 from their income taxes. Some state governments add even more incentives.

Take the case of Tom Franklin, a lawyer in San Diego who just bought a new Nissan Leaf. This all-electric car from the Japanese automaker beat Ford to the U.S. market when it went on sale in November. Franklin got a $5,000 rebate from California and is looking forward to the federal write-off. He told ABC News, "I paid $35,000 and I got $12,500 back. So doing the math on that, that's twenty-two five on the car which is a pretty good deal." Franklin adds, "I feel like I'm at the beginning of a new revolution."

He could be right. Some auto industry observers consider 2011 to be a pivotal year for hybrids and electrics. First of all, "a proliferation of choice", as Car and Driver editor-in-chief Eddie Alterman puts it, will ease consumers into the alternative fuel cars. GM's plug-in hybrid Volt goes up to 40 miles on electric power before a gas engine kicks in. Cars like Toyota's Prius and Ford's new C-Max hybrid drive on electric power up to a certain speed when the gas motor takes over, drives the car and recharges the battery. And now with the Leaf and Focus, consumers can go electric all the way, so long as they can find an outlet to recharge when the juice runs low.

Alterman says "2011 is a significant year in the development of the electric car. These are fully warranteed (sic), ready-for-primetime cars." He adds, "This is more than a fad. This is the future."

Such forecasts are music to the ears not only of Detroit's auto executives. The new cars rolled out today will mean thousands of new jobs for hard-hit U.S. autoworkers. Ford announced that it will build its new hybrids and Focus electrics at its huge Michigan Assembly plant, in Wayne, Mi. For all its new vehicle production, both gas and alternative, the company plans to hire 7,000 workers over the next two years.

The new cars General Motors rolled out at today's show, the Buick Verano and the Chevy Sonic, will mean 1,500 hundred jobs restored to a Michigan plant shuttered during the recession.

Detroit's annual industry exhibit and party has been a very low wattage affair for the past two years. Today, optimism may have been the most prominent rollout on display.