This week, the North American International Auto Show in Detroit opens to the public. Every year, the event is a showcase for the newest trends for tomorrow’s cars and trucks, and this year, the big trend is fuel-efficient vehicles. Cleaner cars have been promised before, but Dustin Dwyer reports that this year’s green car concepts could be more than just an attempt to polish up a dirty image for the auto industry:
This week, the North American International Auto Show in Detroit opens to the public.
Every year, the event is a showcase for the newest trends for tomorrow’s cars and trucks,
and this year, the big trend is fuel-efficient vehicles. Cleaner cars have been promised
before, but Dustin Dwyer reports that this year’s green car concepts could be more than
just an attempt to polish up a dirty image for the auto industry:
The press previews for this year’s Detroit auto show were made up of three straight days
of back-to-back new product launches. Dozens of new vehicles were unveiled. Hundreds
of glossy brochures were offered to reporters, and nothing generated as much interest as
the new Chevrolet Volt concept vehicle:
(Sound of buzzing)
A packed crowd gathered for the flashy and noisy unveiling. GM executives announced
that the concept car could run up to 40 miles without using a single drop of fuel. It runs
instead on electricity cranked out by its next-generation lithium-ion batteries. When the
liquid fuel system eventually does kick in, it recharges the battery for better fuel
economy, getting up to 150 miles per gallon.
And as GM CEO Rick Wagoner told the audience, the Chevy Volt represents a new way
of thinking for the world’s largest automaker. It comes from a realization that oil alone is
highly unlikely to supply enough energy for all of tomorrow’s vehicles:
“For the global auto industry, this means that we must as a business necessity, develop
alternative sources of propulsion based on alternative sources of energy in order to meet the
world’s growing demand for our products.”
GM wasn’t the only automaker to unveil a fuel conscious vehicle at this year’s auto show.
Ford’s Airstream concept, and Toyota’s FT-HS sports car concept both featured hybrid
style powertrain systems, backed by a lithium-ion battery.
It might not be all that surprising for automakers to release such vehicles after a year in
which gas prices surged beyond three dollars a gallon, but analyst Jim Hall of Auto
Pacific says gas prices aren’t the reason for automakers to get into low or no emission
“You do it for two reasons, one, the potential of getting out of the business of making a
mechanical engine that has to be machined and made of multiple pieces and assembled,
and the other part of it is, you never have to spend another penny on emissions controls,
and emissions research, and emissions development and emissions engineering, which, at
every major car company is billions of dollars.”
So, basically, greener technology will eventually be cheaper technology. That means that
for perhaps the first time in the history of the auto industry, the interests of
environmentalists and the interest of business-minded bean counters are finally in line.
The big question now is how to get to that greener future. The concepts at this year’s
Detroit auto show all point to lithium-ion batteries as the next frontier. These batteries
are more powerful, and potentially cheaper than the batteries in today’s hybrids, but
they’re also less stable, and don’t last as long.
GM executives say they think they can resolve those issues and have a lithium-ion
powered vehicle by the end of the decade, but Jim Hall says no way:
“I worked on an electric vehicle program when I was employed in the auto industry
directly, and I learned that there are three kinds of liars in the world. There are liars,
damn liars and battery engineers.”
Of course, not everyone agrees with Hall’s assessment. Some lithium-ion proponents
even argue that the technology could be ready to go right now. Ford, General Motors and
the Chrysler Group have asked the federal government for more funding to speed-
development of lithium-ion batteries.
They say the Japanese government is giving its car companies several hundred million
dollars for battery development, and they want a comparable effort from the US
government. But even if Detroit automakers don’t get the money, almost everyone agrees
that big changes are coming for the auto industry, and that decades-long battle between
the good of the environment and the good of carmakers could be coming to a close.
For the Environment Report, I’m Dustin Dwyer.