At last, Detroit seems to have put its wheels on the road to environmentalism.
The unveiling of the Ford Prodigy and General Motors Precept at the North American International Auto Show here is perhaps the most convincing evidence yet that the US auto industry is serious about developing cleaner technology.
The cars, which get 80 miles per gallon by combining diesel and electric power, are just concept cars - not yet ready for the showroom. But they are the first fruits of a partnership among the Big Three automakers and the US government aimed at putting ultra-fuel-efficient cars on the road within four years.
Moreover, with Honda and Toyota already wheeling out their own consumer-ready gas-electric hybrids, 2000 may represent a landmark year in the industry's push to move beyond the internal-combustion engine.
So far, consumers have been unwilling to buy more fuel-efficient electric vehicles because of their high cost, limited range, and long recharging times. Yet environmental friendliness remains important to them.
Polls show 97 percent of Americans are concerned about air pollution, and 88 percent worry about global warming. Half consider themselves environmentalists, according to a George Washington University poll.
"Consumers want to have their cake and eat it too," says Eric Clark, government spokesman for the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles (PNGV). "They want comfort, safety, and also fuel efficiency and low emissions."
The Prodigy and Precept are Detroit's most ambitious attempt to date to solve all these problems. It grew out of PNGV, the government-backed effort begun in 1993 to build an affordable, roomy, mid-size sedan that gets 80 m.p.g. with no sacrifice in space, range, or cost, compared with today's vehicles.
To achieve this, the Big Three automakers teamed up with federal government labs and various regulatory agencies.
The automakers each pour in $980 million annually into the program. The partnership laid out plans to show running prototypes this year and production vehicles by 2004.
For its part, the GM Precept uses a rear engine and an extremely aerodynamic design to meet the 80-m.p.g. goal. But it sacrifices luggage space. The Ford Prodigy uses a slightly more powerful diesel engine up front, augmented by an electric motor, used for only a slight boost. It sacrifices no practicality.
But Detroit has a long way to go before the Precept and Prodigy are roadworthy. They meet the standards for practicality but not for emissions and are too expensive to produce.
Follow the leader
In addition, the Big Three are scrambling to catch up with Toyota and Honda, which will have hybrids on the road this year.
The Honda Insight, available now, is a tiny two-seat gasoline-electric hybrid capable of 70 to 80 m.p.g. It sells for $18,880. Toyota's Prius four-door subcompact will be launched late this year for about $22,000.
"Consumers are more aware of environmental products now and are placing more value on environmentalism," says Mark Amstock, the marketing manager for Prius.
While the Japanese will sell every Insight and Prius they can build, both cars will be niche products with limited demand, says Mr. Clark.
That's why PNGV is waiting longer to introduce bigger vehicles that will still be environmentally friendly. It wants to make fuel-efficient cars more palatable to the public.
Indeed, while consumers say they want cleaner vehicles, they've been voting with their pocket books that size, comfort, and capability are more important to them. Last year's sales of pick-ups, minivans, and SUVs outpaced sales of smaller, more efficient cars.
"To have any environmental benefit, you need to get these cars out on the road [in large numbers]," says Clark. "They won't have any impact if they remain niche vehicles."
The industry is also facing tight regulations requiring more efficient vehicles.
"There's growing regulatory pressure in California, New York, Massachusetts, Vermont, and Maine, so we need to address those concerns and [carbon dioxide] globally," says Mr. Amstock.
"There's also a certain responsibility to do the right thing."
Automakers are also scrambling to meet California's Zero Emission Vehicle mandate that requires 10 percent of all cars sold in California in 2003 to produce no pollution. Today the only zero-emissions vehicles are battery-powered electric cars.
To that end, Ford announced Monday that it will launch a new all-electric vehicle brand called TH!NK, which will begin selling small inner-city electric-commuter vehicles at 50 Ford dealerships later this year.
Ford's first family chairman in 30 years, Bill Ford Jr., is known as an environmentalist and says he wants to make the company that is his family's legacy "part of the solution, rather than part of the problem."
Ford will also offer a short-range, low-speed Neighbor electric commuter (like a hopped-up Golf cart), two electric bicycles, and eventually a full road-ready electric two-seat Citicar.
Eventually, the industry anticipates all cars will have zero emissions. PNGV anticipates hydrogen-powered fuel cells will eventually replace the internal-combustion engine. But challenges with hydrogen distribution and storage mean that's at least 15 years away, says Clark.
PNGV has adopted hybrid-electric cars as the best interim solution.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society