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Roadblocks for array of new electric vehicles

Despite the electric cars on display at the North American International Auto Show, EVs are still very unlikely to take off in the near future

As I have mentioned elsewhere this week, the Detroit show was definitely lacking something. A spark, perhaps. But there was no shortage of electricity when it came to the nitty-gritty of passenger vehicle propulsion.

I'll be honest, my experience with electric cars is somewhat limited. My couple of days spent a year ago with a Tesla Roadster was fun at times but mostly frustrating, thanks to Abu Dhabi's power supply, which was insufficient when it came to recharging the car's battery pack and to take me home to Dubai. But still, car companies continue to wheel out new models that, they claim, do the planet no damage whatsoever thanks to zero emissions.

Not wanting to get into a debate about the potential damage to the environment by making these cars in the first place, it's still curious to see how manufacturers are trying to appease legislators by developing new, zero-emission cars. And, at the show, Cadillac pulled one out of the bag, in the lithesome form of the ELR. Based on the Chevrolet Volt - a car I am curiously attracted to - the ELR is, indeed, a fine looking automobile. It looks like a normal car, which, as certain manufacturers have found out the hard way, is what most electricheads actually want.

The Cadillac will go on sale later this year, initially only in the US, and despite its Volt underpinnings, there are sufficient changes to the plug-in, petrol/electric hybrid powertrain and an elegant, two-door coupé body to prevent any confusion on the part of customers. But will it sell?

According to certain people, the answer is no. "America will be self-sufficient for its oil demands within three years," pointed out David Booth, one of The National's contributors, when I bumped into him near the new Caddy's display area. "So nobody will be interested in them as a long-term proposition. If we secure the oil supply, nobody will see the benefit of these cars."

Getting anybody to be open and transparent about the numbers of electric cars sold thus far is difficult, if not impossible. But a recent Forbes article managed to shed some light on the matter, claiming that sales figures in the US for 2012 were expected to reach 56,000 electric and plug-in hybrid passenger cars. That might sound like a healthy number but bear in mind that amount is shared between quite a few manufacturers. And Ford alone sold nearly 180,000 "normal" cars in the month of November last year.

Clearly, then, the carmakers don't really want to be spending all their development budgets on cars that nobody will buy. Even with hefty bribes and "incentives" on offer, buyers are staying away. Having said that, however, it has emerged that Tesla managed to sell more than 1,000 of its new Model S saloons last November, and that car was also enjoying some time in the limelight at the Detroit show.

It's a beautiful thing to behold, which will no doubt help sales, particularly in the all-important Californian market. But it's also beautifully finished, with an interior that is one of the finest I have ever seen. It's streets ahead of the Fisker Karma and is so far removed from the Lotus-based Roadster that only the badge on its bonnet says they're the products of the same company. With tens of millions of new cars sold every year in the US, is there a chance that Tesla could have a hit on its hands? I mean, they even brought along the Model X concept car and that has gullwing doors, so the company is obviously feeling positive.

Talk to anyone else in the industry, though, and it's clear: the all-electric car probably won't feature in many companies' line-ups a few years from now. Toyota has just ditched its mini EV strategy and Audi has binned the electric A2 project. Even the much-hyped electric R8 has been forgotten, with the engineers going back to an idea they had a few years ago: diesel power.

Hybrid powertrains do, however, seem to have a much brighter future ahead of them. Perhaps it's the knowledge that there's still a traditional engine under the bonnet that can actually be heard and that will get you home when the batteries run out that appeals.

Whatever it is, the almost palpable disinterest in EVs displayed by the thousands of journalists meandering around the Detroit motor show proves that the era of silent, emission-free motoring is still a long way off and may never come to pass at all. The numbers just don't add up.

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