For me, the highlight of the weekend's panel discussions at the Santa Monica Alt Car Expo was two guys just sitting around and chatting. The reason the hour-long freeflowing discussion between the men was so good was that they - Dan Neil (left in the picture above) and Ken Bensinger, both writers at the Los Angeles Times - were smart, funny and unafraid. Basically, it's what you want in a discussion of where things stand today in the automotive industry: two people calling it like they see it.

Introduced by LA City Councilmember Wendy Greuel, the panelists covered everything from the cars on the expo floor - Bensinger called them the Model Ts of the new generation - the just how great gas is - Neil made the very reasonable point that, from an energy perspective, "liquid petroleum kicks ass." Details on what else made up the discussion are available after the jump.

The moves that GM is making with the Volt (and made with the EV1) took up a lot of the discussion, and Bensinger hesitated when Neil asked him if he thought the Volt was a good faith effort from the General. "It's complicated," Bensinger said, and added that Toyota has a green halo even though it builds the Tundra and Sequioa. Meanwhile, GM makes some quite efficient vehicles but has a reputation (not undeserved, IMHO) as a gas-guzzling monster maker. Therefore, the Volt is both an opportunity and a risk for GM.

Neil made the point that calling the weekend's event the AltCar Expo gives the impression that this is some sort of guerilla movement, and that's the wrong attitude. We need to work with the automakers, not against them, he said. But Neil has been covering the auto industry long enough to know that not everything the OEMs say is true. GM, for example, sticks out in Neil's mind as a company that needs to be careful with their public words. "These guys screw me over on the Volt again, I'm going to be pissed off," Neil ranted. Still, Neil brought up Bob Lutz's comments that there is no way to swap out all of America's ICE vehicles for EVs without scrapping the current EPA and DOT rules concerning safety. We shouldn't eliminate safety regs, but we much rethink them for a new generation of vehicles.

When will that next generation finally arrive and will GM be the first with a car you can actually buy? What if the plug-in Prius comes out in first-quarter 2010, Neil asked, beating the Volt by six months or so (the PHEV Saturn Vue didn't come up in the talk). And what about Chrysler that, even with all of its problems, could do electric cars and potentially beat GM to the punch with their new EVs. The guys wondered whether being first is necessarily the best, and Bensinger pointed out that the Insight certainly didn't beat the Prius, adding that it will be the first car that does what customers want it to do (get incredibly high mpg, be easy to use, safe, etc.) that will win the fight, not simply the first plug-in car. And, until that plug-in becomes available, Neil suggested that, the best course of action is to simply not buy a new gas-powered car because to make a new car requires such a tremendous amount of resources. Actually, he phrased it, "don't buy another car, until your car is dead, dead, tits up dead."

On another topic, Neil described how, trapped in their little car bubbles, people don't realize just how much energy it takes to move a car. I can totally agree with Neil's example of getting his children home without using the car. The house I used to live in was on a very steep hill and, considering that I biked everywhere, I would need to bike up that hill every day (sometimes two or three times). It was always ten very sweaty minutes of very slow going, but I got a very deep appreciation of what it takes to go uphill. Riding in a car up that same road - and making the trip in 30 seconds - always felt like cheating. It should be hard to go uphill, and the when more people internalize this, it'll help in the overall shift to using less energy, I think.

Other topics include the Aptera (might not be safe, but just look at it), natural gas, and that Republican "Drill, baby, drill" mantra (a "lunatic posture"). Incredibly recommended listening (55 min):

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