It is now generally acknowledged that if the automobile is to have a future, it will be completely or partially electrically powered. GM is staking its future on its plug-in hybrid, the Volt, which is due out in 2010. A Chinese automaker is already selling a competing vehicle, and several Japanese manufacturers are planning to announce new all-electric or hybrid vehicles in January.

At the Detroit auto show, Toyota will unveil the next generation of its successful Prius that is said to have a new hybrid power train which will deliver higher mileage and improved performance. Honda will unveil a new competitor for the Prius, and Mitsubishi will show a four seat all electric with a 100 mile range and a top speed of 87 mph.

Perhaps the most interesting new car in recent weeks is the one built by BYD in China. BYD started life as an advanced battery manufacturer that moved into building cars about 5 years ago. BYD says it has developed a new, proprietary battery technology that will move a four passenger car 62 miles at highway speeds on electricity alone. Built with a range extending gasoline engine like the one in the Chevrolet Volt, this vehicle is already on sale in China for $22,000.

If this vehicle works as advertised, it will mark a paradigm shift in the automobile industry for it is coming on the market with better performance specifications, two years earlier, and at half the rumored cost of GM’s Volt. If the US automobile industry can survive for the next two years it may find difficulty competing with just the Volt. It is worth noting that Warren Buffet has invested $230 million in the BDY electric car project in hopes of introducing them in the US by 2011.

One of the subplots of the anticipated switch to plug-in electric cars is the availability of places to recharge them. In China nearly all housing in urban areas where people can afford cars is in high rise buildings – unsuitable for recharging without a major investment in wiring parking spaces. In America, however, one of the redeeming features of suburban sprawl is easy access to electricity either in garages, driveways or simply in front of a house. This could make the adoption of plug-in cars much more acceptable in the near future.

While the plug-in car has the potential to provide urban transportation with only a fraction of the amount of liquid fuel currently being consumed, the transition to electric cars will be lengthy and expensive. The world’s fleet of liquid fueled cars is now approaching 1 billion vehicles and many question whether there will be enough resources to make the transition.