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.

Mark Blinch/REUTERS
A luxury version of the Toyota Prius, the 2010 Lexus HS 250h hybrid car, was introduced during the North American International Auto Show in Detroit on Sunday.

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.

On Sunday, Honda unveiled the next generation of its hybrid Insight, a five-door hatchback that is a successor to the hybrid of the same name that was discontinued in 2006. Honda plans to produce 200,000 Insights next year, with 100,000 going on sale in the United States starting on April 22 (which just happens to be Earth Day).

Not to be outdone, Toyota has revealed its 2010 Prius. This sleeker, more fuel-efficient version boasts 50 miles per gallon – a 4 m.p.g. improvement over the current version – and a moon roof with solar panels that power the ventilation system.

Toyota is also rolling out a Lexus version of the Prius, which for some insane reason is not being called the Plexus. Instead, they're calling it the HS250h, which stands for Hybrid Sedan 250 hybrid. New York Times auto journalist Michelle Maynard pressed Lexus's general manager about the redundancy, and he seemed to agree that it was a pretty dumb name.

The Japanese automaker has also introduced a little zero-emissions commuter car. The Toyota FT EV, an all-electric version of its iQ, is expected to have a range of 50 miles.

American cars, too

US automakers also seem to be finally getting serious about cleaner cars, having promised to do so after seeking billions of taxpayer dollars from Congress in December. Chrysler unveiled two new "production intent" members of its electric ENVI line – a plug-in hybrid version of its Jeep Patriot, and a sleek, fully electric sports car called the Circuit. The other ENVI vehicles, announced last year are an all-electric Lotus sports car and a plug-in hybrid minivan and Jeep Wrangler. No definite word on when any of these will be available to the public, although Chrysler says it hopes to roll out one member of the line next year.

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.

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.

(For a more comprehensive rundown of highlights, eco-friendly and otherwise, from the Detroit show check out this post from Monitor tech blogger Andrew Heining.)

Chickens, eggs

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.

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