This week I'm driving around in a $47,000 2008 Cadillac CTS with all the latest high-tech gadgets, including full iPod connectivity and a very sexy female voice that whispers, "Warning: traffic congestion two miles ahead." Of course, I was at a dead stop in gridlock conditions when it told me that.
This Caddy is one form of "smart" car, but all the electronics weigh it down, so even with a V-6 in place of the rapidly disappearing V-8, it makes just 17 mpg around town. I think the smart cars of the near future will show off their brains by reducing weight and switching to really innovative electric-based drive systems. And with the annual ritual known as the Detroit Auto Show now underway, the industry (sobered by $3 a gallon gas) is finally showing signs of intelligent life.
Toyota is already trying out versions of its plug-in Prius on California roads.
1. Toyota's Plug-in Hybrids
So far, Toyota has made the biggest splash by announcing that it would offer a commercial plug-in hybrid vehicle by 2010. The company had said earlier that it would market lithium-ion batteries, but now it has somewhere to put them. Felix Kramer, founder of the California Cars Initiative, called Toyota's announcement "stunning and very welcome."
Early versions of Toyota's plug-in car, based on the Prius, are being tested at two campuses of the University of California. These pre-production cars can operate in all-electric mode for only seven miles, but the 2010 vehicle will probably bump that up to 20 to 30 miles. The current plug-in switches back to the gas motor at 62 miles per hour.
According to Toyota President Katsuaki Watanabe in Detroit, "By 2010 we will accelerate our global plug-in hybrid R&D program. As part of this plan, we will deliver a significant fleet [of plug-ins] powered by lithium-ion batteries to a wide variety of global commercial customers, with many coming to the U.S."
Toyota's announcement was widely expected, because GM has already committed to a 2010 date for its first commercial plug-ins. There are two programs, the less ambitious of the two is based on the existing Saturn Vue hybrid. The company is also working feverishly on its Chevrolet Volt concept car, which uses its small gas engine only to charge its lithium-ion batteries. The big challenge is coming up with acceptable batteries, GM engineers say.
The other Big Three carmakers are biding their time. Ford has developed a small fleet of plug-in hybrids, but has no plans to offer them to the public. Chrysler's Sprinter van was the first plug-in from a major manufacturer on U.S. roads, but it's also still a limited edition.
The Chevrolet Volt: ready for prime time in 2010?
But there were other "green" stories coming out of Detroit:
2. New Lightweight Material
Johnson Controls showed off a lightweight headliner material, "Ecobond," that is 50 percent hemp, flax and kenaf. Down in Brazil, I visited small-scale factories that were processing coconut husks to make door panels and sun visors for locally built Mercedes cars, so this idea has some roots.
3. GM Segway Partnership
GM announced a partnership with Segway in which it adapted its Flextreme electric car to carry (and charge) two of the New Hampshire company's personal transporters. That's great, but GM won't build the Flextreme and Segway sales remain tiny. I still find the gyroscopically balanced scooter a lot of hype and little actual achievement. It hasn't changed the world, in other words.
4. Fisker Karma Plug-in Hybrid Sport Sedan
Another kind of plug-in hybrid shown in Detroit is the luxury four-door < a href="http://www.fiskerautomotive.com/" target="_new">Fisker Karma sport sedan, which certainly makes some strong claims, including zero to 60 in less than six seconds and 50 miles of all-electric range. They say it will be on the market in 2009 for $80,000, with 15,000 annual sales projected. We'll believe it when we see it, because the road to independent car production is so rough. The media apparently thought that California-based Tesla (which had "cool" high-tech connections, millionaire investors and a gorgeous sports car as part of the package) was different. But now its electric sports car dreams seem to be unraveling amid layoffs and missed deadlines.
5. Land Rover Hybrid Concept
Of all companies, Land Rover showed off a hybrid concept, a crossover coupe called the LRX. It has a biofuel-ready two-liter turbodiesel under the hood, and Land Rover claims 30 percent fuel economy improvement. But it's a concept car, and thus unlikely to see production (even though Porsche is actively pursuing a hybrid).
6. GM and Coskata's Trash-to-Ethanol
When it's not trying to get the Volt ready to shock the public, GM is also partnering with a trash-to-ethanol company, Coskata, which think it can make the biofuel for less than a dollar a gallon. It also claims its process can reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 84 percent when compared to gasoline.
7. AFS Trinity's "Extreme Hybrid"
I saw an extremely credulous TV report about the "Extreme Hybrid" from New York-based AFS Trinity. "Amazing," said the reporter, "it gets 150 mpg, with 40 miles of all-electric range!" But the car is a plug-in conversion of the existing Saturn Vue hybrid (in other words, a homemade version of the same car GM says it will actually build).
AFS Infinity's "Extreme Hybrid" is a plug-in Saturn Vue.
Other aftermarket plug-ins are on the market, but I would wait for the carmakers in 2010. AFS says it wants to license its technology to the industry, but that road is paved with tragedy.
8. Chinese Carmakers Enter Plug-in Hybrid Market
Chinese carmaker BYD also says it will be building a plug-in sedan, with U.S. sales hoped for in three to five years.
Attention music fans: The Barenaked Ladies performed for the "car guys" in Cobo Arena, which is a step up from past shows, which featured actual barenaked ladies.
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