The Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank, last month held a panel discussion on energy security that included two former commanders of the U.S. Marine Corps and retired GM Vice Chairman Bob Lutz.
When Lutz spoke, his first target was not climate-change activists or federal fuel-economy standards --past recipients of Lutz's zingers.
Instead, Lutz expressed exasperation with fellow conservatives such as Rush Limbaugh and columnist Charles Krauthammer, who have attacked the Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid.
Lutz, who pushed the Volt to production, was particularly irked by comments about the Volt "exploding" and being, in Krauthammer's words, a "federally dictated confection, the flammable Chevy Volt."
"No electric vehicle has ever caught fire, and yet the political right is constantly talking about the flammability, overheating, fire hazards and so forth," Lutz said. "Folks, it's a pure fiction. Get it out of your heads."
In a presidential election year in which the debate around vehicle electrification has grown toxic, rebuttals like Lutz's are a new wrinkle. In the past few weeks, EV backers have started firing back at conservative critics.
Wynne: Dropping the gloves
Brian Wynne, president of the Electric Drive Transportation Association, a Washington advocacy group, says he recently told his staff to book him as many speaking appearances and interviews as possible -- "the more hostile the better."
"We decided to drop the gloves now to encourage our side," Wynne said in an interview. "We're doing some really valuable things . ... It was time to push back."
In a commentary on the Web site Politico Wynne accused EV critics of "rooting against a growing American industry." He added: "Particularly striking is how far removed public debate on electric vehicles is from the facts."
Wynne says that election year politics are obscuring bipartisan support for alternative automotive fuels.
"Serious people in this town, regardless of party, say this is part of the solution," he said.
Eric Bontrager, spokesman for the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington, said the group's recent report on fuel costs and emissions for EVs -- including emissions involved in generating electricity to recharge batteries -- was meant to counter inaccurate attacks.
The study found that the total cost of charging an EV is lower than that of fueling a gasoline-powered vehicle. Even in areas with coal-generated electricity, the study said, EV emissions are equal to a gasoline-powered vehicle getting 33 mpg. In many areas, total emissions are lower, according to the study, "State of Charge: Electric Vehicles' Global Warming Emissions and Fuel Cost Savings Across the United States."
And at the Beijing auto show, GM CEO Dan Akerson complained that the Volt had become "the punching bag for not only the politicos of our country but also the press."
Despite the new feistiness of EV backers, the charged-up debate probably will continue until the Nov. 6 election. In part, that's because President Obama is touting the bailout of Chrysler and General Motors -- as well as development of the Volt -- as first-term achievements. That naturally draws fire from Republicans.
But EVs evoke issues beyond the bailout. Limbaugh, in a recent commentary, said that he doesn't object to EVs as an option for consumers. But he added that "Obama and the leftists are trying to guilt people" out of petroleum-powered vehicles.
"The electric car is about taking choices away from the American people about what they want to drive," Limbaugh said. "The electric car is about bigger government."
Also, federal Advanced Technology Vehicle Manufacturing loans have dried up in the wake of criticism by Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney that some loans were politically motivated.
The rhetoric has left EV backers resigned to enduring the election cycle. Lutz, for instance, wrote a column for Forbes titled "I Give Up On Correcting The Wrong-Headed Right Over The Volt."
The bottom line for the Electric Drive Transportation Association's Wynne is that no federal action on EVs or energy policy is likely before Election Day: "Between now and the election, nothing works politically."