On road to clean fuels, automakers cover some ground

Friday's opening of the international Los Angeles Auto Show will feature the usual leggy models draped across carnauba-waxed chassis. It will showcase the usual engine housings, gleaming under spotlights, and futuristic dashboards twinkling like front-yard Christmas displays.

But if this show is any indication, the world's automakers are signaling that they know business as usual won't cut it in a market beset by rising oil prices and consumer concern about emissions' role in global warming – and that the hunt is on for the next-generation fuel.

More than any time since the early '70s, automakers are thinking and designing "green," say many industry analysts. The trend is not moving as fast as environmental activists or most climate scientists would like – as protests here make clear – but it also may not be as slow as some critics claim.

Electric vehicles, gasoline-electric hybrids, diesels, and flex-fuel and hydrogen-powered cars are inching up the consumer on-ramp at a faster pace, judging from world debuts of 21 alternative-fuel vehicles.

"It sort of feels like the early part of the 20th century, when everyone was trying to figure out whether to go with steam or electricity or gasoline," says Gavin Conway, editor in chief of Automobile Magazine. "People are saying, 'Do we go with electric, hybrids, diesel, or what?' "

General Motors Corp., for its part, is stirring several alternative-fuel pots. The world's largest automaker will make a plug-in hybrid sport-utility vehicle (which can run on gasoline or on stored electricity obtained by plugging into a standard electrical outlet) that will be double the fuel efficiency of any existing SUV, CEO Rick Wagoner told reporters Wednesday during the show's media preview. The company also plans to expand hybrid models to include Saturn and Chevrolet Malibu sedans in 2007, he said, and will offer Hummers with an engine fueled by biofuels by 2009.

"It's highly unlikely that oil alone is going to supply all of the world's rapidly growing automotive energy requirements," said Mr. Wagoner. "For the global auto industry, this means that we must – as a business necessity – develop alternative sources of propulsion based on alternative sources of energy."

In the US, where gasoline prices remain lower than in Europe, consumer consciousness nonetheless seems to have turned a corner, say Wagoner and others. Recent events figure into interest in other fuels: the partial loss of US oil production after hurricane Katrina, rising public awareness during the Iraq war of the perils of foreign-oil dependence, and soaring energy demands of China and India, which are driving up world oil prices. Perhaps trumping them all is consumers' increased public concern about global warming.

"Because of all these events, the overriding concern this year is the environment – finding ways of not burning carbon-based fuels," says Mr. Conway. GM's effort to present itself in a greener light, he says, is a bid to recover from falling sales – down in the US 9.4 percent through October compared with the same period last year.

Trying to learn from past false starts, designers are working to better meld consumers' competing demands for environmental friendliness (gas economy, low emissions), sex appeal (power, speed), and practicality (roominess, versatility).

Two cars getting early buzz here are BMW's Hydrogen 7, the German automaker's latest alternative-fuel vehicle modified to run on gas and liquid hydrogen, and the Mercedes BlueTec diesel, the first to meet California's air-quality standards, the most stringent in the world.

"Manufacturers are getting better at building cars that are fast and good- looking, not some tree-hugging penalty box," says Angus MacKenzie, editor in chief of Motor Trend Magazine. "The momentum is building for designs and technology that will address [a] consumer's concerns for air quality and the cost of oil without giving up his concerns about acceleration, style, drive, and practicality."

As the show opens to the public Friday, activist and scientific groups aim to get out their view that car companies could go much further than they have. Many single out the industry's continued focus on hydrogen-fuel prototypes, which are years from mass production and have little or no infrastructure to support them in the way of hydrogen fueling stations.

"All these ecoprototypes are well and good, but they don't begin to address the crisis of America's oil addiction," says Sarah Connolly of the Zero Emissions Campaign of the Rainforest Action Network.

Others applaud incremental advances on display, such as the 2007 Ford Expedition's six-speed automatic transmission that enables the SUV to get an extra mile per gallon over the four-speed model.

But no single automaker is using enough advanced technologies in one car to increase mileage by the 10 miles per gallon needed to dent US dependence on foreign oil, says Jason Mark of the Union of Concerned Scientists. An average advance of 10 m.p.g. across the US would amount to a savings of 2.3 million barrels of oil a day – the equivalent of current oil imports from the Persian Gulf, he says.

But manufacturers must take into account what people will buy, says an industry representative. A vehicle with the kinds of low emissions and fuel efficiency Mr. Mark envisions would have to sacrifice speed, size, acceleration, or design – all the ingredients that excite buyers, says Charles Territo of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, a trade association of nine top automakers. In every state, sales of light trucks, vans, pickups, and minivans outsold passenger cars last year.

"The industry is moving toward cleaner, safer, more efficient vehicles," he says, "but we can't get too far ahead of our buyers."

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