FRANKFURT, Germany -- Audi, Mercedes Benz and BMW today showed off electric cars today that could become Tesla Motors and Fisker Automotive's worst nightmares.

Then again, it's a battle that may take years to come to a boil.

Green is the theme at the International Auto Show taking place this week taking place in Frankfurt and the three German giants trotted out sporty, high-end electric vehicles destined for the same market that Fisker and Tesla are trying to carve out.

Audi, for instance, unveiled the E-Tron, a lithium-ion battery-powered sports car with four electric motors: one on each hub. The car can hit 100 kilometers an hour in 4.8 seconds and includes energy-conserving technologies, such as a heat pump instead of a conventional air conditioner. Sanyo makes the battery.

"We're not just putting an electric motor and battery into a [standard] car," said Michael Dick, who oversees Audi's technological development. The company plans to put a prototype on the road by the spring of 2010 and put "a series of these cars" onto the market in 2012 (see picture below).

"This is not an austerity concept," Dick added, but a sports car.

Next year Audi will release a Q5 hybrid with lithium-ion batteries. (Volkswagen, part of the same conglomerate, will release an electric economy car in 2013.)

Mercedes, meanwhile, showed off the SLS AMG, a low-slung sports car that will be available as an all-electric in 2013 among other electric cars. Additionally, Mercedes said that it is working on a platform called BlueZero. Under BlueZero, the same basic architecture could be tweaked to accommodate a hydrogen fuel cell, a lithium ion battery, or a hybrid drive train (see pictures below).

"This will convince even e-mobility skeptics," said Dr. Dieter Zetsche, chairman of the board at Daimler AG and head of Mercedes. "This gives us economies of scale and many synergistic effects."

BMW was a little vague with dates. Norbert Reithofer, chairman of BMW, said that that the testing for the Mini-E, the all-electric Mini, is going well and that BMW will come out with two luxury hybrids in the near future.

Reithofer concluded his speech by showing off the Vision EfficientDynamics concept car that goes from zero to 100 kilometers an hour in 4.8 seconds and contains three engines: a gas engine and two electric motors, one on each axle. The car can be driven as an electric car, a hybrid or a gas car.

While automakers routinely show off concept cars that never see the light of day, Audi and Mercedes gave release years for their electrics, making the likelihood that the cars will come out somewhat strong. (Wolfgang Hatz, who heads up powertrain development for the VW Group, which includes Audi, added in a private interview that three-fourths of the concept cars Audi shows off end up largely making it to market.)

Reithofer, meanwhile, noted that BMW has already released a lithium ion-powered hybrid and touted BMW's sustainability record.

So will companies with billions in capital, existing factories, extensive dealer networks and thousands of engineers and designers swamp the startups? Maybe, and maybe not. Audi's car won't be released for three years and the Mercedes showcase won't arrive for four.

But more importantly is the question of volume. While the Big German Three all express great interest in electric cars, it is unclear how many models they will release and how extensively they will promote them.

Whether or when Audi will start producing all-electrics in large volume "is difficult to answer," said Hatz. "We need to understand the technology further. We will start at small volumes."

Some of the big questions are whether lithium-ion battery prices will come down and whether customers will adapt to the limited range of electric cars. European sports car buyers typically want higher top speeds than U.S. buyers, he said, which favors gas cars when range is factored in. An all-electric selling for more than $50,000 may be difficult to sell in large volumes, he stated.

"Safety is a big issue," Hatz added. And again, there's the volume question: Audi makes thousands of cars a day, he said.

Photographers mob the Mercedes SLS AMG, an all-electric coming in 2013.

A quiter moment for the SLS AMG.

The Audi E-Tron with Chairman of the Board Rupert Stadler. The E-Tron has four hub motors, one attached to each wheel.

BMW's hybrid prototype has three engines: a gas one and one electric motor on each axle.

BMW Chairman Norbert Reithofer surrounded by the company's commercial and prototype calls. Fly my pretties!