Thursday, January 11, 2007

Carousel of Progress?

I'm always intrigued by what car shows tell us about the future of motoring and transportation energy. Setting aside the flashy concept cars that attract the true car buffs, this year's Detroit Auto Show, currently underway in the Motor City (what will they call it when Detroit's share of the US market falls below 50%?) offers some interesting glimpses of the cars of tomorrow. GM scored a major PR coup with its Chevrolet Volt, a sleek prototype plug-in hybrid car. But no, it's not scheduled for production, yet, and thus doesn't fill the gap I identified in last Friday's posting. Other carmakers are demonstrating new technology, as well, but much of it seems aimed at a more seamlessly integrating cars into the information age, rather than making them more efficient and less polluting. And from all indications the weight and horsepower "arms race" of recent years continues unabated.

When brands like Lexus and Audi start touting hybrids, the technology isn't just about fuel efficiency any more. The Audi Q7 hybrid SUV pairs a gasoline direct-injection V8 engine and a battery-electric motor to push its 5300 lb. curb weight from 0-60 miles per hour in under 7 seconds, but still delivers less than 20 mpg in the bargain. And at the same time that Toyota was showing off its FT-HS hybrid sports car concept, it was also rolling out its distinctly non-hybrid 2007 Tundra CrewMax truck (14-20 mpg, depending on equipment,) which is designed to compete with Detroit's biggest pickups. It expects to sell 200,000 of these per year, about twice the number of Priuses it sold last year.

In order to reduce our oil imports and our greenhouse gas emissions by enough to matter in geopolitical or climate change terms, one necessary precursor will be a mainstream car show in which a majority of the vehicles displayed are powered by hybrids, advanced diesels, or fuel cells--and not merely as concepts or prototypes, but representing the next year's production models. Detroit 2007 falls well short of meeting that criterion, but it's a start. Probably the best news there from an energy perspective is the growing number and popularity of "crossover" models, which are car-based SUV/station wagon surrogates. By attracting enough buyers to make a serious dent in the sales of big SUVs, the resulting 3-5 mpg per vehicle fuel economy improvement could have a bigger impact on our overall energy consumption than all the hybrids and other advanced vehicles--or ultra-minis like the long-awaited Smart Fortwo--at least over the next five years.

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