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01/18/2008 10:00 AM     print story email story  

Detroit Auto Show Painted Green News

Today wraps up the first week of the 2008 North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) in Detroit, a week dedicated to offering the press and industry insiders up-close views of the newest concept and production-ready vehicles from automakers around the world.

With global fuel prices around $100 barrel, a new CAFE standard in the U.S. and heightened awareness of global climate change, this year's show--not surprisingly--is the "greenest" yet. Plug-in hybrids, lithium-ion battery packs and solar roofs were numerous and the biggest players in the industry not only unveiled new green-car concepts, but also gave significant lip-service to separating the automobile from it dependence on the oil industry.

X Prize Challenge

Representatives from six teams that intend to compete in the Automotive X PRIZE competition were on hand to speak about there quest to build the 100 MPG vehicle. The Automotive X PRIZE was created to help break the world's addiction to oil and stem the effects of climate change. It is open to teams from around the world who can design, build and bring to market 100 MPG equivalent vehicles that meet market needs for price, size, capability, safety and performance.

To date, more than fifty teams from seven countries have entered the competition. Qualifying teams will embark on a rigorous cross country race that combines speed, distance, urban driving and overall performance in 2009-2010. The winners must exceed 100 MPG equivalent fuel economy, fall under strict emissions caps and finish in the fastest time.

Competitors range from highly publicized companies, like Tesla Motors, to Jim Stansbury, the founder and CEO of the Physics Lab of Lake Havasu, who was in Detroit to talk about his team's Chevy Blazer that is being outfitted with solar collectors and mini turbines to charge batteries and wings to improve lift.

Notable Debuts

Major manufacturers including Dodge, Chevrolet, Toyota, Cadillac, Chrysler, and Honda rolled out their newest clean products at the show.

Toyota's new hybrid pickup truck called the A-Bat, drew a lot of attention with it's gas-electric power system, solar panels and crushed-from-the-top look.

Chrysler unveiled three concept vehicles, including the hydrogen fuel cell powered ecoVoyager, which the company says has a 300 mile range. The company's Dodge ZEO concept is an all-electric sport wagon with a 250-mile range, and the Jeep Renegade features a lithium-ion battery pack and a small displacement clean-burning diesel engine. This vehicle drew raves for it's design work as much as for the 110 miles per gallon, Chrylser claims it achieves.

Cadillac exhibited its new Hybrid Escalade, featuring GM's dual-mode hybrid system, which they say promises almost a 50% increase in fuel economy. Honda brought out its new CR-Z Gas/Electric Hybrid, which has the same engine as the company's civic.

Saturn championed a plug-in hybrid electric version of the Saturn Vue Green Line called the Vue Flextreme, and Mazda showed its new hydrogen hybrid. Ford premiered its EcoBoost internal combustion engine, which it claims offers 20% better fuel economy.

Also joining the green push for the first time this year was Ferrari, which unveiled it's F430 Spider Biofuel. The vehicle can run on E85--a blend of 85% ethanol and 15% gasoline. The company said it showed the prototype "in recognition of growing interest in North America in alternative sources of energy." Ferrari, which is known for high-powered gas-guzzlers, said it's goal is to cut fuel consumption and emissions on the car by 40% by 2012.

Top Newsmakers

GM continued its turnaround from the company that "killed the electric car" by announcing that it had purchased a minority stake in biofuel producer Coskata. GM Chairman and Chief Executive Rick Wagoner caused a media stir on Monday by suggesting that global oil supplies had already passed the infamous "peak," and calling for an increasing switch to biofuels as an intermediary step between gasoline-powered vehicles and all-electrics.

GM also displayed it's much-touted Volt electric vehicle, which the company says currently has a 30-mile range. Vice Chairman Bob Lutz had an extended chat with media explaining why the Volt release and test drives have been delayed due to software issues and a lack of battery testing.

Startup company Fiskers Automotive made a big splash, unveiling its high-performance sports sedan and announcing a second round of funding from the successful Palo-Alto investment firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Beyers. The Fiskers Karma aims to compete for the celebrity market with Tesla Motor's all-electric Roadster, with prices starting at $80,000.

High-profile venture capitalist Vinod Khosla also got into the action, announcing an investment in the high-efficiency diesel engine maker EcoMotors. EcoMotors promises to bring low-cost diesel engines that boast lower emissions and 100 miles per gallon fuel efficiency by 2011.

However, on the green front, AFS Trinity Power Corporation was perhaps the show-stealer, displaying a converted Saturn Vue that reportedly achieved more than 150 mpg thanks to what it calls an Extreme Hybrid engine that uses ultra-capacitors to supply power to it's electric drive train. The SUV, called the XH-150, can go 40 miles in electric mode and has a range of 400 miles with gas.

AFS hopes to license the technology, which it says can be outfitted to any SUV model, but says it will pursue production on its own if it finds no buyers.

Not All Green

But the auto show wasn't completely green, it still exhibited its fair share of supercharged, tire-melting, fossil-fueled power, such as Chevrolet's Corvette ZR1--the most powerful and expensive model in the car's long history.

It boasted 620 horsepower from a supercharged 6.2-liter V8 that the company says will take the car from zero to 60 in under four seconds and cost more than six figures for the limited edition.

And of course, there were critics who pointed to what they say is a "greenwashing" that doesn't soak beneath the surface of the major automakers. One such critic noted that Cadillac's hybrid Escalade touts a 45% increase in city mileage, but that when the small print is examined on the company's website, one learns that the vehicle only got 12 miles per gallon to begin with. Which means the 45% increase brings it to a mere 17.4 mpg.

One Last Note

Further emphasizing the green nature of this year's show was the NAIAS AutoShow Breakfast, hosted by Inforum, a group of professional women based in Detroit. The breakfast/panel discussion was called "Beyond Green: Unraveling the Sustainability Mystique," and focused on how the auto industry is on the cusp of a dramatic change as companies respond to governmental standards and customer demand for vehicles that are more environmentally friendly.


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