If you've ever attended one of the world's large auto shows such as Frankfurt or Detroit, you know there's a major disconnect between what's there and what's in showrooms. And the gap is widening as the auto industry shifts from gas to electric propulsion, representing the biggest change in its 125 year history.
Nonetheless, auto shows are indicative of what's coming -- some day.
The Frankfurt Motor Show is on through Sept. 27 and cheesecake shots of concept cars are showing in the newspapers and blogs. Unfortunately, the cars getting the most press attention are often least likely to ever appear in showrooms.
Take the Renault Zoe Z.E. Concept Electric, for example (Z.E. stands for zero emissions). A large shot of the Zoe Z.E. tops page B9 in this morning's Boston Globe yet few of us will ever drive anything like it in the next 5-10 years. It's the same with the even weirder Renault Twizy.
The gap between what's shown at auto shows and what's in your local Ford showroom is now a gulf. In the past, we could ignore gas-powered concept models because under the hood, cars were largely the same on the show room floor.
But the shift to electrics is expanding the gap between what's promised and what's delivered. We want proven electric vehicles and for the past 10 years, the only car to really live up to that has been the Toyota Prius. And it remains alone in that category.
The electric craze happened all of a sudden. When I covered the Detroit Auto Show in January, 2008, cars and even some cars of the future were still mainly about gas-powered engines. I was struck that Ford's expansive exhibit area was dominated by muscular pickups because the new F150 was about to debut. It was the same at GM only it had a few more concept cars.
In many ways, the 2008 Detroit Auto Show was the last major gas-powered show and it came just before the entire industry cratered. Even fuel efficiency minded Hyundai and Kia introduced new models with eight cylinder engines (Kia's Borrego SUV and Hyundai's Genesis luxury car).
The talk at the Frankfurt Motor Show is all about electrics, hybrids and fuel efficiency, but your local Ford showroom is still occupied by mostly gas-powered vehicles many of which struggle to average 30 miles per gallon. I don't mean to pick on Ford. After all, it didn't take bailout funds and has the most contemporary vehicle lineup of the three American automakers.
In Frankfurt, Ford introduced a "Battery Electric Vehicle (BEV)" model of the popular Focus. Fifteen prototypes of the Focus BEVs will toodle around London next year as part of a demonstration effort. They won't hit showrooms until 2012 and even then, they'll likely be scarce with consumers edgy about buying an unprecedented new model. I guesstimate it'll be 2014 before they're mainstream and even that depends on everything going according to plan.
The ethereal description of the Audi etron electric muscle car which debuted in Frankfurt is fitting given you're unlikely to see one screaming down the freeway any time soon. The all electric e-tron will produce 230 kilowatts or 313 horsepower, but it's still just a concept (by comparison, the Focus will maximally produce 100 kilowatts).
In Detroit 20 months ago, the highlight in Audi's exhibit area was the R-8 Audi sportscar with its 420 horsepower 8-cylinder engine.
It's good a recovering auto industry is steering away from reliance on oil to more abundant kilowatts. But to give you an idea how long it takes to make this sea change, Germany has launched an initiative to get one million electrics on the road a decade from now. Ten years is exactly how long it took Toyota to sell a million Prius hybrids. Ten years is a long time.