02/13/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Automakers, Fearing for Their Lives, Are Going Green Fast

There was a strange combination of excitement and fear at this year's Detroit Auto Show. Last year, Chrysler drove a herd of cattle through downtown Detroit to celebrate the launch of a new gigantic truck. This year Chrysler's main display was filled with electric vehicles that they may never be able to build, but see as their only path to redemption.

Green cars, in fact, might just solve all of the auto industry's problems. It makes good business sense to start getting off gasoline. As long as they're basing billion dollar product lineups on the current cost of a commodity (oil) that is hugely unstable, their industry will be unstable as well. This year's top-seller might suddenly seem obsolete as gas prices hit huge peaks and valleys, never finding a stable place in between.

And, of course, green cars also make PR sense. Toyota continues to bask in the light of the halo created by the Prius, even as their trucks, less efficient than Ford and Chevy's, earn them huge amounts of money. But even more pressing is the need to put forth a viable vision for the future, especially as Congress and U.S. citizens debate whether or not these companies are worth keeping afloat.

The more Ford, GM and Chrysler talk about their electric vehicles, the more they appear to be actually innovating, instead of stagnating.

The innovation has moved beyond appearances as well, at least at GM and Ford. Chrysler, having suffered from financial problems for the last couple of years has been doing a fine job of talking about their electric vehicles. But I have yet to see much evidence that they're doing the necessary research and development to actually make them work.

GM on the other hand has been developing the Chevy Volt electric car (with an on-board, gasoline range-extender to re-charge the batteries after 40 miles of pure-electric driving) for the last three years and will have the car on sale in late 2010. GM also showed off the Converj concept, luxury Cadillac coupe that would use the same technology as the Volt. But in bringing the Volt platform to Cadillac, GM hops to show that the system isn't about compromise, it's about a fantastic feature that's worth paying for.

Ford on the other hand is taking a more direct route to the electric vehicle. Instead of focusing on a truly broad appeal car like the Volt, they've promised to have a commercial-use electric van on the road by 2010 and a small all-electric car on the road by 2011. These cars aren't going to be high-volume, in fact, they'll almost certainly be restricted to select urban markets. But Ford is showing a commitment to these vehicles by working with as-yet-unnamed municipalities on developing incentives for EV drivers (monetary, parking and HOV lanes) as well as a network of charging stations.

As I look down on all of this on the plane flight home, the only thing I would prefer is if this hadn't had to happen for business reasons. If only the auto companies could have seen that developing sustainable and clean ways to drive their vehicles was good policy for its own sake. But I suppose I can't be too upset about what their motives are now that they're doing it. Let's hope that at least two of the big three are around next year, and, if so, that they continue down this path to the electrification of the automobile.