If Detroit can't make electric real, why not enlist Uncle Sam?

Japan's again taking the technology lead--this time with electric auto infrastructure. As the bailout talks continue, it's worth our while to consider the example.

Last time I checked the wires, Congress was still deciding terms and conditions for a prospective $15 billion rescue plan to supply emergency loans to General Motors and Chrysler. The funds are supposed to keep them from running out of money before the year ends, and it's anybody's guess if we're about to throw good money after bad.

GM: Waiting for the Volt Martin LaMonica/CNET Networks

I'll leave that debate to the economists and auto experts. But one aspect of the bailout intrigued me: the concept of a so-called car czar appointed by the president to oversee the bailout and set guidelines. This is the direct antithesis of the capitalist credo. One of the complaints that I've read drew a parallel with the guided capitalism practiced by Japan's Ministry of International Trade and Industry.

But MITI's involvement in Japan's domestic auto market has also forced carmakers to work on developing next-generation automobiles and fuels far earlier than their U.S. counterparts. Now it's that country's Ministry of Environment getting involved in a feasibility study to test a network of electric charging stations, some supplied by Better Place, the auto start-up run by SAP's former No. 2, Shai Agassi.

As my colleague Martin LaMonica explained:

The electric vehicle feasibility study will give local governments access to 50 electric cars for several months. Cars included are Mitsubishi Motors' iMieve, the Plug-in Stella from Subaru, the Honda Clarify fuel-cell vehicle, and the Erezo electric motorbike under development.

Better Place will install battery exchange stations in the trial. The deal in Japan is similar to those made recently with several countries, the city of San Francisco, and the state of Hawaii that have signed on with Better Place, which has developed a system to accelerate electric car use through battery leasing and automated swapping.

The trial is part of Japan's national goal of having electric cars make up half of all new vehicle sales by 2020. The program will also include a facility for rapid car battery charging.

It's too early to tell whether Better Place has the right idea, but it's worth a close look. Crude oil prices have come down in the last half year, but don't bet on that for the long term.

Agassi's start-up offers an intriguing use of technology to try to solve a pressing transportation problem, and Japan's car companies are taking notice--even if it came with a big nudge from the government. With Detroit's car companies so close to bankruptcy, pay attention to that example--especially since we seem to be on the verge of the partial nationalization of our domestic auto industry.

 

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