Small, entrepreneurial electric-vehicle makers are about to get some serious competition.
Most major automakers at the Detroit auto show confirmed plans for an EV or plug-in hybrid. The Nissan Leaf and Chevrolet Volt are on the market already. Ford showed its Focus EV, Volvo displayed a C30 EV, and even Smart had its EV on hand.
Game on, in other words.
And this brings small EV companies to a critical point where the central question is not whether their technology works but whether they can become real car companies.
That's because building what is essentially a working prototype, while no small feat, doesn't make you a car company. It probably doesn't even get you halfway there. The huge challenge is in the complexities of purchasing, manufacturing, safety standards, warranty costs, marketing and establishing a retail network to handle sales, parts and service.
The ability to master this stuff -- the business part of the car business, as opposed to the car part -- will be the big test for small companies. Already you see some falling into a pattern of missed target dates for the start of production.
On the other hand, some upstarts are making credible progress.
Elon Musk's crew at Tesla Motors, for instance, has a factory, a retail network and an engineering staff that is designing a mid-sized car from the ground up. The Norwegian EV maker Think, tiny but not exactly a startup after 12 years, is shipping vehicles from its plant in Elkhart, Ind. And Fisker Automotive is preparing to use an old GM plant in Wilmington, Del., and setting up franchised dealers.
These innovative outsiders need to keep moving quickly. Their energy has drawn major automakers into the game.