Motor City received a green makeover this week as plans for more environmentally friendly vehicles dominated announcements at this year's annual North American International Auto Show in Detroit.
For years the world famous trade show has been the place for manufacturers to debut the ever larger and more powerful cars beloved of the American consumer. But with fuel prices continuing to climb a sea change is underway in consumer habits and judging by this year's show car firms are poised to address their changing needs with a raft of cleaner engines and more fuel efficient vehicles.
Spurred into action by the runaway success of the hybrid gas-electric powered Toyota Prius, General Motors (GM) this week unveiled its own hybrid concept car, the Chevrolet Volt.
GM vice chairman Robert Lutz said that the Volt would overcome the range and power limitations that have dogged the EV1 - the company's previous attempt at developing an electric car and the subject of the highly critical documentary Who Killed the Electric Car? - by using a new E-flex system that will combine a battery and fuel powered engine in a regular chassis.
The battery, which can be charged over six hours using a 110 volt outlet, will provide a range of 40 city miles, according to GM. When the battery runs down, a one litre, three-cylinder turbocharged engine kicks in to create electricity and replenish the battery. "If you lived within 30 miles from work (60 miles round trip) and charged your vehicle every night when you came home or during the day at work, you would get 150 miles per gallon," said Lutz. "More than half of all Americans live within 20 miles of where they work (40 miles round trip). In that case, you might never burn a drop of gas during the life of the car."
The hybrid engine can also be adapted so that it runs using bio-fuel, diesel or even a Hydrogen-based fuel cell, instead of petrol, GM said.
However, anyone keen to place an order could be in for quite a wait. GM admits that improvements in lithium ion batteries are needed to make the E-flex System a reality and while some experts believe such a battery could be production ready by 2010 to 2012 others are more sceptical.
Lutz, however, insisted that GM was committed to the product, telling reporters that "this is not a PR exercise or a pure show car - this is a real program with real money behind it that is heading for production."
Closer to production though is BMW's fuel cell-powered Hydrogen 7, which is also on show in Detroit and is expected to be made available through a few select dealerships this April.
The new flex-fuel powered Seven Series features both a fuel cell, which will only emit water vapour and enable a driving range of 300 miles, and a petrol tank that can be used when the hydrogen fuel cell runs out. According to BMW it will also boast a 260 horsepower, 12 cylinder engine capable of doing 0-60 in 9.5 seconds - ensuring it compares favourably with other executive cars on the market.
Meanwhile, Toyota committed to extending its leadership position in the burgeoning hybrid market, announcing plans for a hybrid powered pickup truck and debuting the new FT-HS concept car - a gasoline-electric hybrid powered sports car featuring a V6, 3.5 litre engine and lightweight chassis.
The raft of green announcements came as Toyota underlined the scale of the market for green vehicles, predicting sales of its hybrid vehicles will increase by 50 percent in the US this year to around 300,000 units.
With Toyota's Prius and the rival hybrid vehicles poised to enter the market all aimed at the high-end executive market, firms can expect growing pressure from employees to offer hybrid and fuel efficient vehicles through their company car programmes.
However, anyone thinking that attitudes towards climate change in the car industry have changed completely received a nasty surprise later in the week after DaimlerChrysler's chief economist Van Jolissaint poured scorn on European concern over climate change, claiming "the problem is way, way in the future, with a high degree of uncertainty".
Speaking in a roundtable event at the show Jolissaint was quoted as saying that while claimate change was going to be "on the agenda" globally and in the US for a "long, long, long time", the scale of the problem was uncertain and that some in Europe were taking a panic-stricken approach to tackling global warming reminiscent of the children's character Chicken Little and his fears the sky was falling in.
He argued that organisations should "devote reources to problems that are big problems today, rather than uncertain problems in the future", and that governments should "deal with it in a step-by-step, rational way and not play much Chicken Little."
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