Despite roadblocks, automakers promising greener rides
The Detroit Auto Show is in full swing, and it seems that every participant is promising a new hybrid, a gas-sipping microcar, or a fully electric vehicle.
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General Motors, which plans to launch its much-anticipated Chevy Volt in 2011, announced that it has a couple of other greener cars in store. The Chevrolet Spark, a four-door gas-powered microcar that will try to compete with Daimler AG's Smart cars, is also expected to roll out in 2011. And the all-electric Cadillac Converj (must all car names read like typos?) hopes to combine luxury with zero emissions, although the company doesn't say when it will be available.Skip to next paragraph
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And according to the New York Times, Ford, whose Fusion Hybrid goes on sale this year, has teamed up with Canadian and British automakers to produce three fully electric vehicles, the first of which is expected to be available in 2011.
It seems that, in three years or so, American drivers will finally have a decent selection of more fuel-efficient cars to choose from. But will they bite?
Writing for the Washington Post, business reporter Kendra Marr details the many barriers to widespread adoption of cleaner cars. The first is low gas prices. She quotes Bob Lutz, the vice chairman of General Motors:
With fuel prices declining, government mandates that automakers build highly fuel-efficient cars will be no more effective than combating obesity by forcing clothing manufacturers to make only small sizes, Lutz said.
"It put us in the industry in the position where we are at war with the customer," Lutz said. "Because the customer, given the gas prices, is going to want one thing. And we're going to be forced by regulation to produce something entirely different."
(It's worth noting here that Mr. Lutz said in January 2008 that hybrid cars like the Prius "make no economic sense.")
Ms. Marr also notes that there's an infrastructure paradox when it comes to electric cars:
While plug-in vehicles like the Chevrolet Volt are ideal for urban drivers, few city apartment dwellers will have access to a plug to charge the car overnight. At the same time, utilities aren't about to invest in thousands of public plug-in stations until there are thousands of plug-in drivers on the road.
The same goes for electric-car batteries, which are prohibitively expensive to make in small quantities. But there's no incentive to produce them in larger quantities until there are a lot more electric cars on the market. But that won't happen until the cost of batteries comes down.
Still, in looking at the latest push for fuel-efficient cars, it's hard not to get the feeling that the auto industry has turned a corner. But then again, trucks and SUVs outsold cars last month, something that hasn't happened since February 2008. As long as gas prices stay low, a fuel-efficient future depends on the extent to which consumers can be enticed by automakers' greener choices. And especially in these times, that means making them affordable.