Electric cars have been around since the 1890s, when Thomas Edison and a bunch of other inventors thought they'd hit on the key to mass locomotion. And no wonder: They're quiet, cheap to operate and produce no tailpipe emissions. Yet they own a tiny niche in the small universe of environmentally palatable cars.

But thanks to advances in battery technology, carmakers are revving up to produce a new generation of electric vehicles that are as easy to recharge as your Dirt Devil. Both General Motors and Toyota say they are within two years of a production-model plug-in hybrid. GM's Volt has a gas engine for backup, but it doesn't power the wheels; instead, it acts as a generator to recharge the battery for trips longer than 40 miles. Toyota is working on a plug-in Prius with similar technology. And Ford engineers have been spotted driving around Dearborn in a plug-in Edge.

The Tesla Roadster, which has no gas engine, went into production in March. It can go 220 miles before its battery needs to be recharged, and it tops out at 125 miles per hour. (Arnold Schwarzenegger has one, and so do the founders of Google.) The 2008 model is sold out; the 2009 model costs $109,000. The launch of the Tesla has inspired other small electric-vehicle (EV) start-ups around the globe.

But, says Bradley Berman, editor of Hybridcars.com, the smart money is on the Japanese carmakers. They have big R&D departments and support from the government to produce green vehicles, as opposed to the start-ups, which are financially fueled by venture capital. At the New York Auto Show, Mitsubishi introduced a concept electric vehicle, the iMiev. And it wasn't the only one. Subaru unveiled the tiny, two-seater R1e, and Nissan presented its Denki Cube ("denki" means electric in Japanese).

Engineers and designers still have a lot of work to do to produce an EV that's reliable and practical enough for the mass market. Lithium-ion batteries are costly, prone to overheating and will eventually stop working (think about your laptop battery). The industry is working to increase driving range, reduce the time it takes to recharge the battery, and implement a network of charging and battery-replacement stations. First-generation EVs will be suitable for commuting but not for long trips.

Electric utilities must be ready to meet increased demand, and some of that power may have to come from less-than-desirable coal-burning plants.

Finally, the Governator can afford to pay a hundred grand for a toy like the Tesla, but GM and Toyota know that they had better be able to sell plug-ins for about $30,000. Don't be shocked if the first EVs, at least, come with even higher price tags.

Mark Solheim is a senior editor at Kiplinger's Personal Finance magazine. Send your questions and comments to [email protected].