Carmakers' focus fuel economy, emissions

New models showcase technology

January 16, 2008|By Rick Popely | Rick Popely,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

DETROIT -- The North American International Auto Show has been the place where automakers tried to out-muscle each other with mind-boggling horsepower numbers and performance claims.

But this year, manufacturers showcasing new cars and new technology are focusing more than ever on zero, as in zero emissions or zero gasoline consumed rather than the much vaunted zero-to-60 mph times.

Pushed by consumers worried about rising gasoline prices and global warming and prodded by the federal government, which has ordered a leap in fuel efficiency, car companies at this year's show have turned the corner on their commitment to alternative fuels.

One thing is clear just walking the aisles at this year's show: Consumer sentiment is changing and automakers are scrambling to address it.

"There will always be room for high-performance, exhilarating cars, but they'll probably sell in lower volume in the future," said Mark LaNeve, General Motors Corp.'s head of sales and marketing. "The consumer focus now is on higher fuel prices and environmental concerns"

"We're entering a new phase of the industry and there will be big change in powertrains, size of vehicles and what people buy. We're just beginning to see that change."

Competition between GM and Toyota Motor Corp. - already locked in a battle over No. 1 in global sales - intensified on the green front Monday with Toyota announcing plans to race GM to market with plug-in hybrids that use lithium-ion batteries by as early as 2010. On Sunday, both touted research plans to derive ethanol for fuel from nonfood sources.

All around the show at Cobo Center, car companies that seemingly had ceded interest in hybrids and other "clean" technologies to Toyota and Honda Motor Co. Ltd. are now singing their virtues. And that includes such unlikely players as Land Rover, whose LRX concept packs a 2-liter, 4-cylinder turbodiesel engine teamed with lithium-ion batteries.

One company even managed to make ethanol almost sexy: Ferrari announced that it was experimenting with the bio fuel in its exotic sports cars to lower emissions and improve mileage. It showed a prototype F430 Spyder that burns E85, the ethanol/gasoline blend, and wears green "Bio fuel" labels.

David Cole, chairman of the Center for Automotive Research, says automakers recognized that being green is good business. Toyota cemented its reputation for being a technology and environmental leader as the biggest proponent of hybrids. Toyota sold 277,000 of the gas/electrics in the United States last year, about three-fourths of the industry total.

Now GM is ramping up production of hybrids and vehicles that run on E85, an area in which Toyota is lacking.

"That competition is very natural," Cole said. "You have the two largest companies in the industry, and these guys are going to go after each other hammer and tong."

Toyota President Katsuaki Watanabe told reporters Monday: "We're not just limiting ourselves to GM, but the entire industry. We don't want to be the loser in this competition, of course."

Toyota plans to offer hybrid technology in all of its model lines by 2020 and is also developing solely electric and fuel-cell vehicles.

Toyota's plug-in, in testing now, is a version of the Prius hybrid using rechargeable nickel-metal-hydride batteries. Toyota wants to see how many miles it can get out of the batteries before the need for a recharge.

Cole sees all these roads leading automakers to meet more stringent fuel and emissions standards.

"The technology is coming faster than a lot of people expected," Cole said, adding that "they now believe you can have a green car and have fun at the same time."

"It looks so cool, and it's just so right," he said. "Maybe that's the way it will go."

Rick Popely writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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