DETROIT—The flavour of the month at the North American International Auto Show was clean and green transportation. No surprise there. Among the usual 500-horsepower sports cars, extravagant luxury sedans, ground-shaking pickup trucks, and glitzy SUVs gathered on the floor at Detroit’s Cobo Center, there were more environmentally correct vehicles than ever, with virtually all the major manufacturers presenting something.
The event, also known as the Detroit auto show, is traditionally the first major car show of the season. Usually held in January, it is still the biggest event of its kind in North America, and gives manufacturers the chance to be first out of the gate to showcase what they’ve been up to over the past year.
General Motors, for example, rolled out a seemingly endless parade of hybrid vehicles, electric cars, ethanol-powered concept cars, flex-fuel SUVs, and fuel-pinching commuter vehicles.
“Right now, we are consuming 1,000 barrels of oil per second, worldwide,” asserted Rick Wagoner, chair and CEO of General Motors. “And oil hit $100 a barrel earlier this month. It’s probably safe to say that we have reached a kind of turning point in terms of automotive propulsion.”
However, Wagoner cautioned, it’s not a slam-dunk for alternative-fuel vehicles. “The hard truth is that under the most optimistic of estimates, it’ll be at least another decade before alternate fuels have an impact on conventional fuel sources. Right now, less than one percent of all the cars in the world use an alternate fuel of some kind.”
Not surprisingly, Wagoner also had a few things to say about the growing use of ethanol, which his company is adopting in a wide range of its products. “We could save up to
53 billion gallons of fuel a year if all the manufacturers used this renewable resource,” he said, “and reduce greenhouse gases by up to 84 percent in the process.”
General Motors has also recently partnered with Coskata, an Illinois-based recycling company that manufactures ethanol from just about every nonfood product you can think of, including used tires, garbage, and agricultural waste. Once they get the bugs worked out, Coskata and GM claim they can produce ethanol fuel for less than a dollar a gallon (26 cents a litre), probably to be used as E85, which is 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline. GM and other manufacturers already offer a handful of vehicles with this option and more are on the way.
If you’re wondering exactly where you can get E85, you’re not alone. In Canada, there are at least three outlets—in Ottawa, Guelph, and Chatham, Ontario. “Ethanol offers tremendous potential,” Wagoner concedes, “but the availability of filling stations across the country is woeful. It must be made more readily available.”
Some other “green car” highlights from this year’s Detroit auto show:
> Chevrolet Volt. Introduced at last year’s show, the Volt is the spiritual successor to GM’s EV1 electric car. With lithium-ion batteries and a small gas engine providing supplemental power, the Volt will have a range of some 650 miles (1,050 kilometres) when it goes into production. Which it will. GM chair Wagoner says his company is going “all out” to get the Volt onto the market.
> Land Rover LRX. A diesel-engine/battery-powered hybrid, the LRX will keep Land Rover’s reputation for off-road worthiness while returning a claimed 5.5 litres per 100 kilometres on paved roads. You can’t buy this one just yet, though. It’s at least three years away from production—if it gets produced at all.
> Dodge Zeo. It’s an acronym for zero-emissions operation, and the Zeo is a fully electric four-passenger sports car that can go from zero to 100 kilometres per hour in six seconds. Lithium-ion batteries will give it a reputed range of 400 kilometres, and it’s aimed at driving enthusiasts. And you thought an electric sports car was an oxymoron.
> Chrysler ecoVoyager. Aimed at environmentally conscious commuters, the ecoVoyager is also equipped with lithium-ion batteries augmented by an on-board hydrogen fuel cell. Together, they would give it a range of some 480 kilometres. Would being the key word here, because at this point, it’s just a concept car.
> Toyota A-Bat. With Toyota’s proven Synergy hybrid drive providing propulsion, the A-Bat is still just a gleam in the company’s eye at this point. But it does show that a clean-running full-size pickup truck is more than a pipe dream.
> Saturn Vue Green Line 2 Mode Hybrid. With two hybrids on the market already, Saturn wants to take things up a level. As well as having a by-now familiar hybrid arrangement, this Vue will also feature a plug-in mode that allows consumers to recharge the batteries at home. It’s actually slated to go into production by 2010.
> Honda CR-Z. If it ever gets built, this sleek little runabout will feature Honda’s version of hybrid technology and is designed to appeal to those who like to drive as well as breathe clean air. It was accompanied this year at Detroit by Honda’s FCX Clarity, a zero-emissions, fuel cell-propelled econobox that is actually being made available to “selected” users in California this summer. No word on Canadian availability as yet, but probably not.
> Hummer HX. Isn’t it ironic? Hummer, the vehicle most reviled by environmentalists, may be on the receiving end of a clean-burning E85 “flex fuel” engine that can run on either the ethanol-blended fuel or straight gasoline. The Hummer HX concept car was created by newly hired, under-25 designers at GM, and it may see the light of day.
> Saab 9-4X BioPower. Another ethanol-
fuelled effort from General Motors. Designed in Sweden, it’s a “driver-focused vehicle inspired by Scandinavian design values and respect for the environment”, to quote the manufacturer directly. Turbocharged 2.0-litre, four-cylinder engine, four-wheel drive, and considerably cleaner than a comparably sized gasoline engine, Saab says.
While many of the vehicles shown at Detroit this year are concepts and probably will never put rubber to pavement, at least they show that carmakers are doing something. When you think about it, there’s really no choice in the matter.