Green Cars: The New Black

  • The Chevrolet Volt was named the 2011 Car of the Year at the North American International Auto Show. (Photo courtesy of GM)

In past years, most of the so-called “green cars” at the North American International Auto Show were concept cars – not ready for prime time. This year is different, as Tracy Samilton reports:


The Toyota Prius has been America’s premier environmentally friendly car for ten years. Now, the car has some serious competition. Both the Chevy Volt and the Nissan Leaf have an EPA fuel economy rating the equivalent of more than 90 miles to the gallon.


Brad Berman is founder of plug in cars dot com.


“Suddenly it makes the Prius’s 50 mpg seem mild, Now it’s Toyota’s turn to say, hey, we’re still relevant.”


Toyota is turning the Prius into an entire brand. People going to the show will be able to see three new Prius vehicles, including a plug-in being unveiled in Detroit.


For the Environment Report, I’m Tracy Samilton.


AUDIO: “And the 2011 North American Car of the Year is… the Chevrolet Volt.”

(cheers and applause)

The Volt beat out the Hyundai Sonata and Nissan Leaf to take the big prize. The Volt’s a part-electric, part-hybrid car.


With every automaker investing heavily in electric and hybrid technology… it makes you wonder what we’ll be driving five, 10, 50 years from now. Tracy Samilton covers the auto industry for Michigan Radio. She joins me now to talk about this.


So Tracy – we’ve been hearing predictions about the death of the internal combustion engine for a decade – are those predictions coming true?

The North American International Auto Show

A related news story about the Car of the Year Award

How electric cars work

Transcript

Samilton: No. Based on the way batteries are going now, they’re so expensive that it is still going to be much more economical for most of us to buy a car with a regular internal combustion engine, at least for the next 10, 20 years.


RW: So with all the buzz about the Chevy Volt, how many Volts does GM actually expect to sell this year?


Samilton: Yeah, it’s an interesting situation because they are probably going to sell fewer cars than any other vehicle that won this award. They are probably going to sell 10,000, they are going to build 10,000 cars this year. Next year, maybe 60,000, although GM wants to sell more and is trying to figure out how can we sell more of these vehicles.


RW: At the same time, Consumer Reports recently put out their latest car brand perception survey, and they found out that although most people do want better fuel efficiency, they’re not willing to pay more for it. So, how are automakers going to make these expensive electric and hybrid technologies affordable?


Samilton: That’s a really good question and they’re trying to figure out the answer to that right now. It’s a chicken and egg situation. You know, they have to bring down the cost of the battery, but in order to bring down the cost of the battery, they have to get more of us to buy the car so they can bring down the price through volume. And getting a consumer to say I’m willing to pay that extra money just for the good of say, climate change, is going to be a very difficult proposition.


RW: So what kind of cars do you think we’re going to be driving in the near future and longer term?


Samilton: The internal combustion engine is going to be king for decades, really. For the mid-term, let’s say in the next 20 to 30 to 40 years, we’re going to see more people driving hybrids and plug-in hybrids. And really the long term is way out there in terms of when will the average person perhaps be driving an electric vehicle, maybe by the year 2050 there will be more of these vehicles on the road. And then of course, there is a good chance that we’ll start to see fuel cell vehicles using hydrogen. Very clean vehicles, but also like electric vehicles, very expensive.


RW: Okay, thanks, Tracy.


Samilton: You’re welcome.


Tracy Samilton covers the auto industry for Michigan Radio. That’s the Environment Report. I’m Rebecca Williams.

Autos Part 1: Making Green Mainstream

  • Fisker Automotive plans to sell 16,000 of its Karma plug-in hybrid sports cars beginning in 2009. (Photo courtesy of Fisker Automotive)

For a lot of people, the words “hybrid vehicle” bring to mind dinky little
commuter cars that would get creamed in the fast lane. But red-blooded
horsepower fans might soon be able to get speed, performance, and fuel
efficiency in the same car. In the first of a two-part series on green cars, Sarah Hulett brings us this story about the marriage of
mean and green:

Transcript

For a lot of people, the words “hybrid vehicle” bring to mind dinky little
commuter cars that would get creamed in the fast lane. But red-blooded
horsepower fans might soon be able to get speed, performance, and fuel
efficiency in the same car. In the first of a two-part series on green cars, Sarah Hulett brings us this story about the marriage of
mean and green:


Tougher fuel economy standards are on the horizon, and record oil prices are
already here. So it’s no surprise to hear auto executives talking up the green
virtues of their products.


(Montage:) “GM will continue to drive the development of electrically-
driven vehicles…It’s Chrysler’s mission more environmentally responsible…plug-in hybrid…Saturn has a green
heritage…more fuel efficient, more environmentally-friendly vehicles.”


But typically, performance has taken a back seat to fuel efficiency, and vice
versa.


David Cole is president of the Center for Automotive Research. He says in
the past, the auto industry has taken a bipolar view of the car-buying public:


“One pole was fun, people want to have fun in a car, and another pole was
green, and if you’re green you’re probably not going to have a lot of fun. But
I think what we’ve seen is that they’ve come together.”


(Eric Merkle:) “That was the most unusual thing I saw at this year’s auto show: a biofuel
Ferrari, a Ferrari that runs on corn.”


Erich Merkle is an auto analyst with IRN. That’s a car industry consulting
firm. Merkle is talking about the recent Detroit auto show where Ferrari
showed an F430 Spider with a biofuel engine:


“It just seems so… odd, I guess, to see a vehicle like an F430 running on
ethanol. But Ferrari’s trying to put their hat in, throw their hat into the ring
too, and trying to do their part.”


Ferrari officials say the biofuel sports car is part of the company’s effort to
cut its emissions by 40% over the next five years, and Ferrari’s not the only
luxury performance car company offering wealthy car buyers a greener
option.


Fisker Automotive has a plug-in hybrid it plans to put on the market by the
end of next year. The Karma sports car has batteries that can power the car
for 50 miles. It also has a high-performance, four-cylinder engine for
backup:


“This re-defines performance. It’s performance that doesn’t hurt the
environment.”


Vic Doolan is the former president of BMW North America, and he now sits
on the board at Fisker. He says the Karma can do zero to 60 in under six
seconds:


“The person buying this car will want to drive a nice car, want to be seen in
the right circles, but on the other hand, they want to do something that not
only feels good to drive, but feels good to the heart. It’s to my mind a car
with a conscience, and I think it’s for people with a conscience – about the
environment, at least.”


A Fisker Karma could be yours for 80,000 dollars.


But analyst Erich Merkle says he’s not overly optimistic about the greening
of the luxury, high-performance car market:


“I still don’t think it’s the customer that’s really asking for that. And the other
thing you have to ask yourself is what kind of a difference can a company
like Fisker actually make. Sure, it’s nice, it’s something to see, and
something to kind of ooh and aah over. But at the end of the day, it’s still a very,
very low-volume vehicle, if it even makes it to market.”


Fisker plans to make 16,000 of the sports cars. That’s not a lot of volume.
But the big companies are also looking to sell efficient performance vehicles
to the masses.


Chrysler design chief Trevor Creed says the company had a certain customer
in mind when it created its Dodge concept sports wagon:


“They want to be environmentally responsible, but they also have a need for
speed. We can meet all of those needs, by combining our shared electric
motor with a lightweight aluminum structure to create a future performance
vehicle like this. Ladies and gentlemen: the Dodge ZEO.”


You’re probably not going to see the electric-only ZEO in your local Dodge
dealer lot any time soon, but another big car company is making
turbocharged engines that’ll be available in some cars as soon as this year.
Ford’s EcoBoost powertrain promises 20% better fuel economy, without
sacrificing performance. So Ford says its new cars will be fast, and efficient.


And if you’re looking for a cool, green car for your mid-life crisis but the
Ferarri’s out of your reach, the sporty plug-in Chevy Volt is expected to be
available in 2010.


For the Environment Report, I’m Sarah Hulett.

Related Links

More Room on the Road for Plug in Cars

A new study says there’s enough power being generated in the United States
to run a lot more plug-in electric vehicles. Dustin Dwyer reports the
environmental benefits of such a switch are harder to pin down:

Transcript

A new study says there’s enough power being generated in the United States to run a
lot
more plug-in electric vehicles. Dustin Dwyer reports the environmental benefits of
such
a switch are harder to pin down:


The study from the U.S. Department of Energy finds that up to 84 percent of the
vehicles
on the road could be powered by today’s electric plants, if plug-in vehicles became
more
available.


But in areas dominated by coal-burning plants, electric cars would just switch one
kind
of pollution for another.


Lead author Michael Kintner-Meyer says the future power grid is likely to be cleaner
than today’s. And he says there’s also a benefit from reducing consumption of foreign
oil.


“Although there was a very conservative, I think a very conservative estimate,
overall, I
think the story of plug-in hybrids is a very good one.”


General Motors has said it’s developing a plug-in gas/electric hybrid vehicle. But
executives have not said when that vehicle will be on the road.


For the Environment Report, I’m Dustin Dwyer.

Related Links

Hybrid Suvs Roll Into Showroom

For the past few years, people who have wanted to buy a more energy-efficient car have had to think small. That’s about to change. The floor of this year’s North American International Auto Show in Detroit offered a look at several new energy-efficient models due out later this year or within the next few years. The auto industry hasn’t sold very many of the cars carrying one type of new technology so far, but officials hope more choices will boost sales. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Michael Leland has more:

Transcript

For the past few years, people who have wanted to buy a more energy-efficient car have had to
think small. That’s about to change. The floor of this year’s North American International Auto
Show in Detroit offered a look at several new energy-efficient models due out later this year or
within the next few years. The auto industry hasn’t sold very many of the cars carrying one type
of new technology so far, but officials hope more choices will boost sales. The Great Lakes
Radio Consortium’s Michael Leland has more:


At the Toyota display at this year’s auto show, a small crowd formed around the newest version
of the gasoline-electric Prius. Toyota’s sold the car since 1997, and has made it bigger for this
year. What makes this car different is it’s powered by a gasoline-electric hybrid engine. A few
months ago, Denny Jones of Toledo, Ohio ordered a new Prius. He’s still waiting for delivery, so
he drove to Detroit to sit in one at the auto show.


“First of all, I’ve had other Toyotas, so I like the quality. They’ve made improvements on this
one. There’s hatchback. On the first style you couldn’t have a hatchback. They get better
mileage than the first one. And, overall it is a larger car.”


Gasoline-electric hybrid engines have lower emissions and get better mileage than cars with
standard gasoline engines. Toyota says the Prius gets about 50-miles per gallon. But the only
hybrids on the market so far have been small cars like the Prius and the Honda Civic.


Later this year and next, larger hybrids will roll into showrooms. Honda will offer a hybrid
Accord. And Ford will sell a hybrid version of its Escape SUV. Jerry Bissi braved an afternoon
snowstorm to come to the auto show, and was checking one out.


“I prefer to have an SUV-type vehicle for driving back and forth, all-wheel drive, the weather
conditions we have today outside. So I prefer something like that rather than the car.”


There will be several hybrid SUV’s available by next year. Toyota will sell a hybrid Highlander,
and its luxury division Lexus will offer its own model.


“Ladies and gentlemen, it is my pleasure to introduce the world’s first luxury hybrid vehicle, the
Lexus RX-400-H.”


Denny Clements is a vice-president at Lexus. He says there seems to be a pent-up demand for
larger hybrids.


“Our dealers have taken a huge amount of orders just off word of mouth about Prius, I think. I
think what we have when you talk to our customers is there is a lot of very affluent people who
would like to make a statement about Middle East oil, would like to make a statement about who
they are, but they don’t want to make the sacrifices in terms of luxury amenities.”


Toyota says Americans bought about 21-thousand hybrid Priuses last year. But that’s a drop in
the bucket compared to the almost 16-million vehicles sold in the U.S. last year.


“If you added up all the hybrids that have ever been made since the beginning of time, they don’t
equal the production of one high-volume auto plant in one year.”


That’s David Cole. He heads the Center for Automotive Research. He says some people have
shied away from hybrids because they’ve only been available as small cars, and others have been
wary of the new technology. But mostly, Cole says a lot of people aren’t willing to pay more for
a hybrid.


“Where it is going to be in the future is dependant on one thing in my judgment and that is
economics. Can it be done at a cost that consumers will pay for?”


So far, Toyota, Lexus and Ford aren’t saying what their new hybrids will cost. Right now a new
hybrid Honda Civic costs about two-thousand dollars more than the most expensive gasoline
model. The federal government offers a tax deduction to hybrid-buyers to help close that gap, but
it is being phased out during the next few years. Some automakers and environmental groups say
it’s not enough anyway. They want Congress to pass a federal tax credit for people who buy
hybrids.


David Friedman is with the Union of Concerned Scientists. He says the automakers’ decision to
offer hybrid engines in more models is an opportunity for the country to become less dependant
on imported oil – if enough people can be persuaded to buy the vehicles.


“If automakers put some of their 10-to-15 billion dollars of advertising muscle behind this, and if
the government is willing to get these tax credits out there, I think we can see hybrids grow into a
significant portion of the market.”


Back at the auto show, Jerry Bissi says he’d consider buying a hybrid SUV. He says he thinks
others will too, if the price is right and they prove to be reliable.


“I think there are a lot of people sitting on the fence. They’re going to watch the first one, see
how it does. If it does prove to be good, they’ll jump on the bandwagon and be late joiners.”


Buyers might need some convincing, though. On this afternoon at the auto show, Ford’s hybrid
version of the Escape SUV drew only a few visitors compared to the crowds surrounding the
standard gasoline-engine Escape and the company’s larger Explorer SUV.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Michael Leland.

Related Links

Car Enthusiast Struggles to Change

With another Mideastern conflict looming, many Americans are worried about the possibility of rising gas prices. But as Great Lakes Radio Consortium commentator Tom Springer points out, using less gas may be difficult for a generation that grew up admiring gas-guzzlers:

Transcript

With another Mideastern conflict looming, many Americans are worried about the
possibility of rising gas prices. But as Great Lakes Radio Consortium commentator Tom
Springer points out, using less gas may be difficult for a generation that grew up admiring
gas-guzzlers:


It’s been 20 years since I rumbled through town in a fast car with wide tires and a big
hood scoop. But there, parked in front of me, was the mag-wheeled embodiment of a
teenage fantasy. Its electric blue paint job was flashing in the sun. It was more temptation
then a recovering car freak could resist.


The object of my affection was a 1970 Plymouth GTX. For two years, my brother-in-law
had worked nights and weekends to restore the old muscle car. Under the hood was a
gleaming V-8 engine, with enough horsepower to pull out tree stumps. And now, on a flat stretch
of country road, he casually asked the question: “Do you want to see what it can do?”


Did I want to see what it could do? It was an act of hypocrisy that no self-respecting
environmentalist should ever commit. Since my drag racing days, I’ve learned the truth
about the evils of fossil fuel. I know that America’s car culture is the driving force behind
urban sprawl, acid rain and the ongoing rift with a certain mustachioed Mideastern
dictator.


But after about three seconds behind the wheel, my environmentalist notions flew out the
window. I stomped the accelerator, and the tires squealed. The engine roared. The
carburetors gulped down an ocean of high-octane racing fuel. Then, for a glorious
moment, the long-forgotten thrill of intense acceleration. The hormone rush was almost
enough to bring my adolescent acne out of remission.


We later drove the GTX to a car show. The hot rods on display were mainly pre-1971
gas-guzzlers. They get about 12 miles per gallon in city driving. Oddly enough, that’s
about the same mileage as a monster sports utility vehicle. The difference is, most
collector cars are driven only on sunny weekends.


And 35 years from now, we may be doing the same thing with SUVs. I can picture the
scene on a fall day in 2037. I’m with my grandchildren at an SUV collectors meet. The
kids are staring in disbelief at these mammoth, 8-passenger vehicles, which rarely carried
more than two or three passengers. And the only thing they can think to say is… “Why?”
The world’s not making any more oil, so our day of reckoning is coming. Some
Americans may think that dollar-fifty per gallon gasoline is their birthright. Yet it won’t
last forever. Fuel cells, electric cars and hybrids are the future of human mobility.
Americans like me, who neither car pool nor take the train, will have to change.


But change may be difficult. Because for my generation, the rich exhaust of an untamed
V-8 will always be like a rare perfume. And our memories of cheap gasoline, and the
freedom of an open road, will only grow fonder with age.


Tom Springer is a freelance writer from Three Rivers, Michigan.

Electric Cars Drive Into Zoos

Environmentally friendly electric trucks can be spotted driving
around in some Midwestern cities. On college campuses, including the
University of Michigan, electric pickup trucks are used in campus
courtyards, botanical gardens and other places where noise or exhaust
are
a problem. The next place you’re likely to see electric trucks will be
your local zoo. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Tamar Charney has
the story: