I was stopped dead in my tracks at the Detroit Auto Show this year by the Tata Motors eMO concept, an electric car designed (in the U.S.) to sell for less than $20,000. And it was both really cute and practical! But Tata had tucked it away at the Michelin Challenge Design display, and there was no word about it being produced. “Why not?” I asked. Turns out they listened to me.


C’mon, it’s really cute, I said. The 18.4-kilowatt-hour battery pack promises as much as 100-mile range. And electric cars at that price are the holy grail. Here's the car on video I shot in Detroit:



Right now, if you want to plug in, you’d better have $35,000 to $40,000 ready. Sure, there’s a $7,500 federal tax credit, but you won’t get that right away. President Obama is quietly pushing to increase the rebate to $10,000 and to have it apply to the seller, which means you’d get the money upfront. But it has about as much chance of passing Congress as an expanded health care law.


Battery companies are promising breakthroughs to reduce the price on the EV’s most expansive component, the lithium-ion pack. But it’s mostly lab research that will take years to reach the market.


Lots of carmakers are coming out with cheaper electric cars, but there’s a big caveat. MyCar, Wheego and many others will sell you one for $15,000 or so, but follow that asterisk and it leads to the fact that it’s a NEV. What’s a NEV? Sad to say, it’s limited to 25 or 35 mph by varying state laws, and can’t go on the highway. There are actually numerous highway-capable cheap electrics made in India and China, but they wouldn’t pass federal safety laws in the U.S.


And that brings us to the current news. Tata is, of course, a big Indian company (maker of the world-famous Nano, a $2,500 car that isn’t likely to be sold in the U.S.) Tata has some cloud — it recently bought Jaguar/Land Rover and wants to be a world player. It’s been searching for a way to crack the American market, and perhaps it sees an opening. Tata is teaming up with France’s Dassault Systems to actually build the car. According to Tata’s Kevin Fisher, the company is using Dassault’s technology “to leverage the talents of a global engineering team to meet numerous design and cost constraints [and achieve] a final vehicle price tag of under $20,000.”


I’m hoping this works, and the eMO actually becomes an option for western buyers. It will take a global team to negotiate both American and European safety requirements, crash testing and the whole expensive package. We need to smash the EV=elite equation. EVs have to go blue-collar and carry their lunchboxes to work.


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

The $20,000 electric car
The Tata eMO is incredibly cute, fairly practical, and may become reality now that India's Tata is teaming up with France's Dassault Systems to actually produce