I didn’t want this column to be yet another “Detroit-basher,” but sometimes, if the shoe fits.

We all know the economic horror show which is the current world auto industry, but the worst repercussions for the Detroit Three might not show themselves for several years.

Because while Detroit is cutting back on research and development of new makes and models and technologies, some car-makers worldwide are actually increasing their R&D budgets and making commitments to the “cars of the future” — now.

This past week, Renault-Nissan and Mitsubishi made some major announcements about EVs — rechargeable electric cars — which, considering the low price of gas and high price of developing new products, surprised more than a few people in the auto industry where usually banality reigns supreme, especially in a down market.

Renault-Nissan (they’re one company, headed by Carlos Ghosn) says that they’ll be selling an EV in the U.S., Europe and Asia by the 2011 model year. And a real car, too, they point out, not a “glorified golf cart.”

Company chief Ghosn has never been a fan of hybrids and has instead been pushing the company into being one of the first major players in the EV market.

The only hybrid Nissan sells in the U.S., a gas/electric version of their Altima sedan, uses the same hybrid system as Toyota; Nissan pays a license fee to Toyota for their use of the technology. This has allowed Nissan to offer a gas/electric hybrid in the U.S., which the public seems to like, without the company having to invest billions in new product development.  Cheaper and easier for them to just license existing technology and spend their bucks on new EV tech. 

Renault-Nissan’s other big EV news was to announce a partnership with the government in China to develop and sell EVs in the Chinese market beginning in 2011. China’s short auto industry experience has been a bit like Nissan’s; they’ve been able to skip over all the time, money and trouble it took the world’s car-makers to develop gas and diesel engines, hybrids and rudimentary EVs over the past 100 years, and aim at an “ultimate goal” of being a world-leader in electric vehicles.

Not to be outdone, Mitsubishi last week used the stage of the New York Auto Show to commit to the development, production and sale of their “i MiEV” EV, prototypes of which have been running around the world for several years.

Using lithium-ion battery packs and able to be fully-recharged in about six hours using a 110-volt home plug-in system (half that time using a 220-volt line), i MiEV, says Mitsubishi, will offer up to 100 miles between recharging.

Both i MiEV and the Renault-Nissan EVs are planned to be sold in the U.S. for under $20,000.

If you’re looking to buy an EV in the U.S. from even a fairly well-known car company, you’re choices are extremely limited. In fact, about the only one is the Tesla, an EV sports car, which base-prices around $60,000.

Then there is the hand-built Fisker “extended range hybrid” which, with a system similar to that planned for the Chevrolet Volt, uses a small on-board gasoline engine to keep its electric batteries fully-charged and uses that power to drive electric motors in the wheels. Fisker will start at around $80,000 when it’s planned to go on-sale in 2010.

And then there’s the much-ballyhooed “extended-range” Chevrolet Volt hybrid. Even aggressively priced, with the company subventing sales and taking losses, like Toyota did with the Prius (and may still be doing), most experts say a base price of $40,000 is probable, way more than any other mass-produced hybrid sold in the U.S. And GM’s own auditors have said that even if Volt is produced, the company won’t make any money on Volt sales for at last a decade.

Whether fueled by electricity from new, vastly-upgraded national power grids or using fuel cell and other systems which make their own electricity, future EVs will have a place in almost every garage as oil-fired internal combustion engine fleets are replaced throughout the rest of this century. And experts agree it will take about 100 years for the world fleet to swap most all the oil-burners for real EVs.

Steve Parker has covered the world’s auto industry for over 35 years. He’s a two-time Emmy Award-winner who reported on cars for almost a decade at both KTLA/TV5 and KCBS/TV2. He is a consultant to the NBC-TV show Whipnotic and the show’s companion website, www.Whipnotic.com. He created, writes and moderates the only all-automotive blog on The Huffington Post at www.huffingtonpost.com/steve-parker. Contact Steve through his own automotive issues Web site at www.SteveParker.com.

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