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OK, enough of the electric car feel-good story

If we're talking about a breakthrough, then we're really talking about thinking big about a nationwide charging network. And that means turning to Uncle Sam for help

Mayors representing the Bay Area's three largest cities pledged Thursday they would work together to transform the region into the country's "electric vehicle capital."

At the same time,the global electric transportation company headed by Shai Agassi, Better Place, Announced plans to enter the U.S. market, beginning here.

Now playing: Watch this: SF Bay Area plugs in

The news warms this die-hard greenie's ecologically correct cockles. But can we dispense already with the pipe dream that the electric revolution will be brought to a filling station near you, courtesy of the far-sighted policies of local leadership?

That's not to say that government intervention can't help kick start industries in need with the right dose of economic stimulus. But for better or for worse, it's up to the auto industry--or what soon may be left of it--to bring the idea to life. (I'm assuming that Uncle Sam is not going to nationalize Detroit's car makers. Then again, there are any number of things I never expected this government to do. So who knows?)

If you want to see the glass as half full, there is encouraging news to report. At the LA Auto Show this week in Los Angeles, BMW, Mitsubishi, and Chrysler all demoed electric cars. Meanwhile, General Motors says that its Chevy Volt is still on track for 2011, assuming GM doesn't run out of money first. Elsewhere, Nissan-Renault, working with the state and the utilities company, Portland General Electric, hopes to have an electric car in the Oregon market within the next couple of years. The company's CEO predicts Nissan will have a mass market version ready by 2012. Cool.

But in the absence of a big hand from the federal government, all these vehicles will depend upon a patchwork system built by cities and towns. Can it get built that way? Maybe over decades, though fits and starts.

VentureBeat's Chris Morrison noted that Thursday's press conference suggested a new level of seriousness about electric cars.

"That might seem to have been the case before, but it's worth remembering that California was the backdrop for previous failures to commercialize electric cars, providing inspiration for the documentary Who Killed the Electric Car? And the California Air Resources Board has repeatedly relaxed requirements for automakers throughout its lifetime, providing loopholes to escape switching off the combustion engine."

All true. The announcement shows good intentions, but knowing human nature it's only reasonable to believe people will continue to behave as they always have. Seems to me that the magnitude of the challenge is beyond the capacity of any municipality, alone or in coordination with its neighbors--assuming we want to do it right.

In 1956, President Dwight Eisenhower signed into law the federal act that authorized the construction of the Interstate Highway System, which proved so crucial in the development of the country in the decades since. Any reason why that same sort of leadership today couldn't pave the way for a nationwide grid of electric-based transport?

After January 20, when the new administration takes power, maybe we'll find out.