Gather a bunch of Japanese car journalists or engineers together for a chat on the current state of the industry and you will hear heated debate about design, downsizing, performance, safety and maybe even fuel economy. But for some strange reason, few seem to talk about carbon dioxide (CO2). You know, that awful gas which is said to be responsible for global warming, and of which cars pump out one-quarter in total volume.

But go to a European car show, such as the Paris Auto Salon I covered last month, and that’s all anyone is talking about. CO2 is the No. 1 issue, period.

Car magazines across Europe list CO2 levels of all of the cars they test, car company CEOs open their speeches with strategic aims for CO2 reductions and new car showrooms display CO2 readings of their cars. For the record, Japanese magazines and showrooms don’t (yet). But more Japanese executives are realizing that CO2 is the flavor of the month and are starting to talk about it.

So given the emphasis on CO2 and low-emission vehicles across Europe, was I surprised to see the number of zero-emission electric vehicle (EV) concepts on show in Paris this time round? Not one bit.

Just a year before at the Frankfurt Motor Show, carmakers were displaying next-generation clean-diesel concepts, gasoline-electric hybrids and fuel-cell cars powered by hydrogen. But the first two still produce upward of 100 grams of CO2 per-kilometer-driven, while the infrastructure for a hydrogen society is underdeveloped and the hydrogen gas is difficult and costly to produce.

With news on worsening CO2 levels, erratic weather conditions and endangered species dominating the airwaves and public opinion, the spotlight fell fairly and squarely on EVs in Paris.

That’s why carmakers felt compelled to display so many nearly market-ready EVs at the French show in October. EV concept cars such as the Renault ZE, Nissan Nuvu, Smart ED, Mitsubishi iMIEV, Pininfarina BO, Venturi Volage and the Chevrolet Volt are opening the doors to a whole new world of emission-free motoring that is essential if we are to have any hope of reducing 2 levels.

Up until very recently, however, limited battery technology only permitted a range of up to around 140 km on one charge — and the fact that a whole night was needed to recharge batteries kept such cars on the back burner of manufacturers’ product-development plans.

Not anymore, say carmakers. Apart from the fact that battery technology is surging ahead, the motoring public is finally coming around to the idea that EVs do indeed offer a viable alternative to the current crop of diesel- and gasoline-powered vehicles.

But simply bringing EV concepts to a motor show isn’t going to get the cars onto the roads and into our driveways. These cars need huge investment, collaboration between manufacturers and battery makers, and the support of governments to help set up EV infrastructure, including outdoor recharging stations. As I walked around the show floor, and chatted with several European colleagues, an Italian and German basically said the same thing.

To the question of who will be the first carmaker to kick-start the EV movement, both suggested that Renault-Nissan and Nissan’s joint venture with electronics giant NEC appear to offer the most significant collaborative effort.

At the end of the day, the success of an EV program will ultimately come down to three things: the performance of the lithium-ion batteries, which are the most efficient and powerful type at present; the performance of the EV car itself, including its electric motor and other hardware; and the cooperation of local governments to assist in the integration and infrastructure creation fit for EVs.

As you read this, such a plan is falling into place. Of the EVs on show, one car that stood out was the Nissan Nuvu. At just 3 meters long, the three-seater Nuvu can travel up to 160 km on a charge and employs some of the latest NEC battery technology. Renault-Nissan has also signed agreements with governments in Denmark, Israel and Portugal to test EV marketability starting in 2010. These governments say they will help develop national networks of recharging stations, and will encourage the adoption of zero-emission vehicles by offering tax breaks for those who buy them.

Meanwhile, other politicians have been seen recently touting the merits of EVs.

Even British Prime Minister Gordon Brown was spotted just the other day standing outside No. 10 Downing Street checking out the Norwegian-made Th!nk electric vehicle, a car that is already available in Norway and which will go on sale in Britain next year.

Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoe is also planning to create EV car pools, which would allow people to walk up to an EV station in Paris, flash an ID card to disengage the parking lock and then drive away, leaving the car at another EV station where it can be recharged for free. Interestingly, dedicated EV road signs have started to appear on Paris streets as well.

Nissan has already confirmed it plans to introduce an all-electric car to the United States and Japan in 2010, which it will then sell worldwide in 2012. The Nuvu is not that model, but the technology it uses will certainly appear in the production vehicle.

The Americans too have an offering. Chevrolet, a brand of General Motors, will launch its Volt extended-range electric vehicle by 2010, a car that features an electric motor along with a gasoline engine-generator that only engages when the batteries run down. Unlike in the Prius, the gas engine does not power the car. Traveling upward of 300 km, this concept of an onboard gasoline generator to recharge the batteries might do away with the issue of “range anxiety,” but the Volt still produces low levels of CO2 discounting it as a zero-emission car.

Having test-driven several EVs, I am impressed by their acceleration, handling and ride quality, which in many ways mirrors the gasoline-powered cars we drive today.

The only hurdles to public acceptance of electric cars will ultimately be the lack of engine noise, their limited range and recharging issues — and price. Give me a zero-emission EV that can travel more than 300 km on a charge, recharges fully in 15 minutes, doesn’t cost an arm and a leg to buy, and yet can still excite a driver, and I’m sold. How about you?

Peter Lyon is a 20-year motor journalist who covers Japan’s auto industry for more than a dozen publications worldwide.

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