Tokyo: As the Gulf of Mexico disaster casts an ugly spotlight on the pitfalls of global oil dependency, Japan`s auto giants are moving into high gear in a drive to mass-market electric cars.
Nissan, Honda and Toyota are among car-makers now gambling that electric vehicles (EVs) with their zero tailpipe emissions will catch on and, some time in the future, start to drive traditional gas-guzzlers off the road.
If their bet pays off, green car proponents say, it could ring in a revolution that changes the very idea of what an automobile is, turning cars into electric appliances that drive smoothly, cleanly and silently.
US President Barack Obama called last Tuesday for a "national mission" to develop clean energy, speaking from the White House as gushing crude oil kept fuelling his country`s worst environmental catastrophe.
"The tragedy unfolding on our coast is the most painful and powerful reminder yet that the time to embrace a clean energy future is now," he said in a sombre prime-time telecast.
Battery-powered cars will be a crucial part of that future, manufacturers promise, even as critics point to tough hurdles -- including higher sticker prices and `range anxiety` -- to gaining wide consumer acceptance.
An EV`s energy consumption and carbon footprint are determined by the way its battery is charged -- meaning it can effectively be powered by anything from fossil fuel or nuclear plants to hydro, wind or solar energy.
A critical question will be whether sufficiently large networks of electric re-charging stations are built -- a chicken-and-egg question that has long held back the development of EVs, analysts say.
Cars that can be charged like a cellphone by plugging them into a wall socket, preferably during overnight off-peak hours, promise to shield consumers from volatile petrol prices and be cheaper in the long run.
Another benefit is that they emit none of the tailpipe pollutants that have covered the skies over cities from Los Angeles to Mumbai in smog.
Their efficiency is boosted because they are lighter, have motors that directly power wheels, preserving energy otherwise lost in transmission, and because the battery charge is topped up by regenerative braking.
Bullish Nissan, part-owned by Renault of France, will in December roll out its Leaf -- short for Leading Environmentally Friendly, Affordable Family car -- as the world`s first mass-produced electric car.
The five-seater hatchback has a top speed above 140 kilometres (90 miles) per hour, a range of 160 kilometres (100 miles) and can be recharged in eight hours, or rapid-charged to 80 percent of capacity in 30 minutes.
"We do believe this car is a game-changer in terms of this technology, and it will play a role in the future," Simon Thomas, Nissan`s senior vice president of sales and marketing, said in London last month.
Nissan plans to sell 50,000 EVs in the United States, Japan and Europe per year in 2011 and 2012 and then 500,000 units in 2013. It predicts that by 2020 electric cars will account for 10 percent of the global auto market.