Jay Leno and electric Ford FocusFord custom built two battery-powered Ford Focus cars for Jay Leno, who will put celebrities behind the wheel for a segment on his new primetime NBC show.Courtesy Ford / Jay Leno ShowHollywood has is green crusaders. But Jay Leno, whose garage in Los Angeles (despite solar paneling, a steam engine and wind turbine power) is a veritable shrine to the internal combustion engine, has never been considered one.

But now, as part of his new show on NBC, Leno might just have come up with a concept that will strike an eco chord in Hollywood, and then on Main Street USA. Mr. Petrolhead could just have become Mr. Electric Car.

The new Jay Leno Show features one of the most high-profile green initiatives to date. On average, twice a week, Leno will ask his A-list guests to take part in a segment on the show called the Green Car Challenge.

“We will be asking guests to set a time round a track in the NBC parking lot in an electric Ford Focus and seeing who the fastest green celebrity is. Being a green car, celebrities can save the world and race at the same time,” Leno explains out on his Burbank lot.

By marrying a zero-emission Ford with the most famous names on the planet (Drew Barrymore was the first victim on Friday), Leno has concocted a formula that has the capability of changing America’s perception of eco cars.

“We wanted to show that electric cars can be fun and something you can race,” says Leno. “In America, electric cars have the same cache as gold carts. To see an electric car skidding around a track, I think it has the scope to change people perceptions of eco cars.”

Until now, Hollywood’s greatest impact on green transportation has been its adoption of the Prius as its transport of choice — at least to and from private jets. But with the Focus about to earn as much airtime on prime time TV as Starsky and Hutch’s Gran Torino or the Dukes of Hazzard’s Dodge, few in America will not experience green motoring right in their living rooms in a entertaining way.

Leno is also pleased that he has been able to wave the Stars and Stripes on this crusade. When creating the concept, he was adamant that the feature should support and promote American automotive engineering and ingenuity.

“I wanted an American manufacturer and the only one with anything ready to go and viable was Ford. GM is like a government company now. It’s a little tricky to get anything done,” Leno explains as he walks me round the car.”

As part of a significant financial commitment, Ford has hand-built two cars in Detroit for the show. They are an amalgam of European-shaped Focus body and chassis and U.S.-developed Battery Electric Vehicle technology likely to be seen in production with 18 months.

Ford this week unveiled a Focus prototype with a 23kWh lithium-ion battery pack and a chassis-mounted 100-kilowatt permanent-magnet electric traction motor. Ford claim a range of up to 75 miles and a top speed of up to 85 mph.

Ford's electric battery technologyUnder the hood of the custom built Focus is a 23kWh lithium-ion battery pack and a chassis-mounted 100-kilowatt permanent-magnet electric traction motor.Courtesy Ford / Jay Leno ShowOut of the tight L.A. track, Leno is impressed with the punch the electric car packs. “I think this electric Focus is a fast as the petrol version of the car would be. It doesn’t have the top end speed but with all that torque and on a short track I think it will be almost as quick,” he reckons. “It also shows that Ford are in the game, on the cutting edge. American cars have this reputation for being great for big horsepower, gas guzzling and fast but not necessarily being fuel efficient. By doing this, Ford can change their image a bit.”

Leno has a number of electric vehicles as part of his motorized menagerie. One, a Baker Electric, is a century old. It comes from an era when steam, electricity and the internal combustion engine all had a fair chance at being chosen for mainstream motoring. Gas won, of course, but now electricity is back in the running and is even a favorite of enviro hot-rodders.

“I meet guys who are hyper-miling their Prius’ and getting 100 mpg or adding extra batteries, increasing tire pressure…doing whatever they can,” beams an impressed Leno. “Miles per gallon is the new horsepower.”