It’s really close. We can almost reach out and touch it. The electric cars are coming, and they’re just over the horizon. Not a decade away, not even a year away, but only months away. Remember that thing about it being “too quiet” in old cowboy movies? That’s where we are now, the calm just before the storm.

I was there in Los Angeles at the start of the Nissan Leaf 24-city U.S. tour, and I was in New York City when it ended last week. In the meantime, much has happened. There’s still only one electric vehicle (EV) company with any substantial presence on the market, Tesla Motors, but that's going to change very quickly. Remember these names: Fisker, Coda, BYD, Think, Leaf — they're all coming, and in 2010.

So far, so good. Tesla announced it had sold 1,000 cars in Detroit last month, and while that doesn’t seem like a lot, it’s huge for EVs. Remember that GM managed to lease only about 800 EV-1s in the early 1990s before taking them back and crushing them. You saw it happen on screen in Who Killed the Electric Car?, the 2006 documentary.

But now the director of that film, Chris Paine, is working on a sequel that, far from being a downer, intends to celebrate their rebirth. “Nearly every major automaker now has a plug-in car in the works,” he says on his Revenge of the Electric Car blog. “The first ones are scheduled to hit their initial market areas by the end of the year.”

Paine offers a caution that I would echo. “The flip side of that coin is how much work there is to be done in the same time frame; a walk through this season’s conference hallways reveals smiling faces on top of heavy shoulders and whispering among veterans about whether it’s all going to get done.

“We’re in an odd phase, trying to balance the tension of public excitement for what’s to come with the frustration that it’s not here just yet. In many ways, this is when the bulk of the work begins, much of it unseen and un-sexy: the final engineering shakeouts in extreme temperatures, the combing and refining of labyrinthian charger installation and Department of Motor Vehicle processes, dealer training, service manual writing, and so on.”

Push play on that video and you’ll go through a kinetic round-the-car tour of the Nissan Leaf. But, in a sign of what Paine is talking about, that car is a static model. Nobody drove cars on the Leaf Zero Emission Tour. Does Nissan have finished Leafs? I haven’t driven one, though I have been around the block a few times in the pre-production “mules.” I could say the same about the Chevrolet Volt, the Coda sedan, and the U.S. version of the Think City (I have driven the Euro edition.) The Fisker Karma plug-in hybrid and the Chinese BYD E6, allegedly headed for America this year? I’ve sat in them. Fisker just switched battery suppliers (to A123) which makes you nervous that its new pack can be fully integrated in the rush to market.

These are the vanguard cars. They’re due to be on the road at the end of this year, and there’s only 10 months left to make sure the batteries work in the cold, the chargers charge, the subsidies (and public charging) is in place, and range meets expectations. Britta Gross, who is shepherding the Volt to production, told me last week that she has a checklist that includes such vital “to-dos” as cementing partnerships with utilities and making sure that EVs get free use of California’s HOV lanes.

If it all ends in an EV-1 disaster writ large, that will be because the carmakers didn’t finish their checklists, didn’t think of all the pitfalls and snares. Folks, put more people on the job, make lists, check ‘em twice. It’s too quiet now, but all hell is about to break loose.

MNN homepage photo courtesy of Chevrolet

Jim Motavalli ( @jmotavalli ) writes about cars, technology and the environmental world to anyone curious enough to ask.

Electric vehicles are coming this year, but will they be ready?
The next few months are crucial if electric cars are going to hit the ground running.