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Imagine plugging your car into an outlet in your garage and then driving without a drop of gas.

Okay, electric vehicles, like ethanol-powered cars, aren't exactly new -- people have been tinkering with them since the early 1900's.

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But actually getting affordable  "plug-in" vehicles onto the market with powerful enough batteries to make them practical has been a real challenge for car manufacturers, with several starts and stops.  They could be low pollution and very quiet. But of course, their overall environmental impact would depend on where you're getting the electricity -- from burning coal or using a cleaner source.

Anyway, you may finally see them these zero-emission cars on the roads in less than two years, according to a report from The Los Angeles Times from the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

The paper says a Toyota executive announced that the Japanese automaker planned to market a test fleet of rechargeable hybrid vehicles by the end of 2010, "putting more pressure on U.S. rival General Motors Corp., which has faced obstacles in rolling out its own plug-in vehicle, the Chevy Volt."

Toyota President Katsuaki Watanabe said at the auto show that Toyota, which created the popular hybrid Prius, "expected to have several hundred of the rechargeable vehicles operating in the fleets of large companies or government agencies in less than two years. ...Detroit-based GM has been increasingly vague about the debut of its Volt, which initially had a 2009 release date. The company now puts the debut at late 2010, but last week GM Chief Executive Rick Wagoner called the Volt's battery technology a 'stretch.'"

The Wall Street Journal is reporting from the auto show that Ford has been behind the times in reacting to record oil prices.  Ford is heavily promoting its big, gas-guzzling F-150 pickup truck. Its new compact, fuel efficient car, the Verve, is still a few years off -- with initial marketing planned for overseas. I guess they figure Americans still like big.

"The reality is most of the vehicles at the show that will actually hit U.S. roads this year are gas hogs," the Journal reports.  "Like Ford, Chrysler's main new model is big pickup truck, the redesigned Dodge Ram. GM will show a super-powerful Corvette and a 550-horsepower Cadillac CTS."

GM is promoting the fact that its new Hummers and other vehicles can run on ethanol.  But there are very few gas stations in the U.S. that sell ethanol, so these "flex fuel" vehicles don't necessarily mean that less gas will be burned. But they do mean that GM will get fuel-efficiency credits from the federal government that will allow them to build larger, less efficient vehicles.

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