Back in 1982 when the first Disney original “Tron” movie was released with vehicles zipping around in the computer world known as the Grid, the idea of a real world of cars powered by electricity seemed farfetched.
Probably, not even GM imagined how electric vehicles (or EVs as they are called) would take hold down the road when they manufactured the first mass produced electric car, the EV1, in 1996. If they had known, the company most likely would have pushed the idea more aggressively.

From a consumer standpoint, I’m sure just being around somebody that talked about electric cars felt weird considering the concept seemed so far out in a world where filling up at the pump has been such a way of life.

Nearly 30 years later on the heels of “Tron Legacy,” the sequel to Disney’s ’80s flick, EVs are as real as muscle cars were in the ’60s. Building on the momentum of vehicles like the Nissan Leaf and the Chevrolet Volt, the 2011 North American International Car of the Year, practically every carmaker at the show has a vehicle featuring some kind of electric technology.

Don’t worry, though. The show is still showcasing cars like the new Chevrolet Camaro Convertible, Bentley Continental GT and the Porsche 918 RSR. After all, it really isn’t the Detroit auto show without some of that sizzle.
Still, this year the North American International Auto Show, which is open to the public Jan. 15 through Jan. 23 at Cobo Center, is all about cars that charge.

It’s kind of amazing when you think about it. Here we are in 2011, living in a world where you can buy a car that can be driven from downtown Detroit to the Palace of Auburn Hills without using one drop of gas.

Chances are you’ve seen a few EVs floating around the streets in the city, or maybe you pulled right up next to one and didn’t know it. Despite some of the “Tron”-like similarities around the concept, most EVs are pretty normal looking. In fact, most look just like a typical automobile.

Even more impressive is that a lot of the EVs function like normal cars – a far cry from the fear most probably have that they drive like some kind of go-cart, blowing fuses trying to keep up with traffic.

Differentiating itself with an electrification strategy that emphasizes customer choice, Ford is introducing a family of electrified vehicles — including its first all-electric passenger sedan, the all-new Focus Electric.

The debut of C-MAX Energi and C-MAX Hybrid at the 2011 North American International Auto Show, on the heels of the newly unveiled Focus Electric, focuses on building on Ford’s electrified vehicle portfolio.

The fuel-free, all-electric rechargeable Focus Electric passenger car will launch in North America in late 2011 and Europe in 2012. The C-MAX Energi is the company’s first-ever plug-in hybrid production electric vehicle that comes to market beginning in 2012.
At the Ford booth, auto show attendees have an opportunity to experience the electric Focus and an electric version of the Ford Transit Connect as a passenger.

Dubbed by Chevrolet as the vehicle that’s “more car than electric,” the Volt operates on a revolutionary “Voltec” propulsion system that delivers between 25 and 50 miles of electric driving (depending on the driving conditions) with an extended range up to 310 miles of extended range with an onboard 1.4L engine.

The Nissan Leaf, a fully electric vehicle, can go up to 100 miles on one charge with zero emissions.

Raising the stakes even higher for electric vehicles, Mercedes-Benz has a SLS AMG E-CELL on display at the show (must see). The car features from four synchronous electric motors, each positioned near to the wheels. All motors have combined output of 526-hp with a maximum torque of 649 lb-ft.

Speaking even more to the evolution of EVs is the fact that the SLS AMG E-CELL goes from 0-62 mph 4 seconds, which is close to the 571-hp the 6.3L V8 engine SLS AMG that clocks 0-62 mph in 3.8 seconds.
The Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG E-CELL is expected to go into limited production in 2012.

Other carmakers with electric cars on the display include Honda, Tesla and China automaker BYD.

Sure, considering that electric vehicles only make up a fraction of the marketplace, we still have a long way to go before seeing a rush hour commute on the Lodge full of EVs. But the idea of a world where people are actually connected in our automobiles by an electrical grid is already here.

And it’s a lot cooler experiencing it in reality than watching it on a movie screen, even if it’s in 3-D.
Marcus Amick is a national automotive writer and lifestyle analyst.

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