Detroit, China, Electric Cars, and the Electric Grid

So the Detroit Auto Show is taking place right now. Seems a bit, um, looney to have a Detroit Auto Show, but okay. What do I know? And the buzz at the show is electric, electric, electric. Great. Fine. We all dutifully do our bit for the economy and the environment by buying electric cars.

But -- what's going to happen when we plug them in? Large chunks of the power grid in this country are in less-than-prime condition. I doubt that the grid will hold up under the burden of this new demand.

I gather Almost-President Obama realizes this and his transition team is soliciting plans and ideas for constructing a 21st century "smart" power grid.

Great! We need it sooner than we need new bridges.

But back to the Auto Show. The star of this year's event is the offering from BYD, a Chinese company. BYD's president says he'll be ready to start selling his electric cars in the U.S. in 2010. That's at least a year earlier than Chevrolet plans to release its hybrid, the Volt.

And, get this: BYD's car will cost about $22,000. The Volt? It'll start at $40,000. Both cars, by the way, are mostly-electric, meaning they're designed to run on their charge. Toyota's Prius, in contrast, is a gas-powered car whose electric motor acts a booster rather than the primary power source.

Anyway -- putting on my historian's hat to take the Long View of the Big Picture: All I can think of is the 1970s, when the Japanese began selling their vastly superior (and less expensive) cars in the U.S. Thirty years later, the American auto industry lies in ruins. Bye-bye, Ford, Chrysler, and GM.

Move over, Toyota and Honda. BYD is here. Read more in the excellent front-page story in yesterday's Wall Street Journal.