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Michael Hiltzik: The lure of the (green) road

December 7, 2009 |  3:00 am

The most encouraging sign that the country is getting serious about environmentally friendly automobiles is that politicians, always ready to embrace a public enthusiasm, are jumping on the bandwagon.

My Monday column observes that political leaders from President Obama to Mayor Villaraigosa are trying to encourage interest in plug-in hybrids, the apparent near-term winner of the green technology sweepstakes.

This is a significant advance over the last green car boomlet, the hydrogen car starburst of 2004. Among the carriers of the "hydrogen highway" virus was Gov. Schwarzenegger, influenced by his environment secretary, Terry Tamminen.

Despite scientific doubts about "how -- or even whether -- hydrogen might become America's
fuel of choice" (as I wrote at the time), Schwarzenegger staged one of his patented Potemkin Village events to promote the absurd idea of building 150 to 200 hydrogen filling stations in the state by 2010.

It's safe to say we won't meet the deadline. The hydrogen Hummer Schwarzenegger drove to the event wasn't his, the filling station where he purported to top it off wasn't functional, and he departed the scene in a gasoline SUV. Tamminen is still plumping for hydrogen cars, but hydrogen driving is still at least 20 years away, and politicians, finally, have their eyes focused on the real world, not fantasy.

The column begins here:

Anyone strolling about the exhibition floor of the L.A. Auto Show this week can be forgiven for thinking that the battle for the green car has been won, and the plug-in electric hybrid is the victor.

Scads of major automakers unveiled models that are within a year or two of showroom readiness, with the Chevy Volt (projected to run for 40 miles on a household charge before switching to gasoline) drawing perhaps the most buzz. Irvine-based Fisker Automotive Inc. took a booth to promote its forthcoming $88,000 Karma, a plug-in luxury hybrid.

When not fending off questions about the ouster of General Motors Chief Executive Fritz Henderson a day earlier, GM’s venerable product executive Bob Lutz devoted his keynote speech Wednesday kicking off two days of media previews to talking up the “totally revolutionary” Volt and GM’s commitment to electric propulsion.

Read the whole column.

-- Michael Hiltzik