Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Building Bridges to Greener Wheels

It's a heck of a time to hold a car show, when new figures indicate car sales last month were off 37% compared to the prior January, and with a brand new administration for which cars must surely seem to be a much bigger problem than opportunity. But then the 2009 Washington Auto Show, with its theme of "The Automotive Seat of Power", had a very different feel from most of the car shows I've attended in the past. While there was no shortage of glitzy new models and concept cars, the emphasis was squarely on making cars much more efficient and environmentally-friendly. Visiting dignitaries included the new Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. In remarks at a presentation on the new EcoCar competition--the follow-on from the Challenge X competition I described last year--one of her deputies emphasized three overarching imperatives for the industry: economic stability, energy security, and emissions reduction. The auto company officials I spoke with were already on board with that message.

I can't fit all my experiences and a proper assessment of the issues involved into a single posting, so instead I'll just recount the highlights of attending the media-only preview of the show, and a dinner for a small group of bloggers organized by General Motors the previous evening. I hope to expand on much of this in subsequent postings.

The GM dinner was certainly a highlight. I met the head of the Chevrolet division and had a lengthy conversation with Tony Posawatz, who leads the design team for the Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid, the latest prototype of which was on display at the show. I had a chance to ask all of my questions about the Volt's configuration and how it will perform once its approximately 40 mile electric-only range is exhausted. I was particularly impressed with the Chevy team's underlying philosophy on the eventual electrification of most vehicles, which would greatly diversify the sources of transportation energy, and by their understanding of the complexity of the larger energy and environmental challenges involved. Cost remains a crucial hurdle for EVs and plug-ins, with battery packs still tremendously expensive and fuel so cheap, just now. I was assured that the Volt is on-track for its launch in the latter part of 2010.

A brief conversation at the Honda display underlined that cost concern, in the context of Honda's redesigned Insight hybrid, which is aimed at reducing the price premium of hybrids over non-hybrids and making them more affordable for a mass market. The new Insight has more than a few styling similarities to the Prius--"The same equations have the same solutions", as the great physicist Richard Feynman once said--and has no non-hybrid version to compare with. Both are probably smart moves on Honda's part. I also saw the new, third-generation Prius, which will apparently get even better fuel economy than the current model. If you liked the look of the old one, you will probably find this version sleeker and more graceful. Otherwise, it's yet another jellybean.

The other big highlight for me was the opportunity to drive three different European-style diesel cars, courtesy of the folks at Bosch, which makes the components that transform today's diesel engine from the smoky, noisy, balky device that Americans normally associate with this fuel into a smooth, clean and relatively quiet powerplant. The Mercedes ML320 and VW Tuareg and the 41 mpg (highway) Jetta TDI were all fun to drive, and their advanced particulate control systems meet the air-pollution requirements of all 50 states. I was also impressed with the Jetta's "double clutch" electronic transmission, which shifts almost imperceptibly. This model, which qualifies for a $1,300 fuel economy tax credit, will certainly be on my short list when I next go car-shopping. The other treat provided by Bosch was a ride in a test car that integrates advanced safety features with radar-based adaptive cruise control. If you haven't experienced it before, it's a bit eerie watching the cruise control handle city traffic, coming to a full stop without driver intervention. We are rapidly approaching the point at which computers can drive our cars better than we can, or at least make better use of their capabilities, including achieving the car's maximum fuel economy potential.

The emphasis on fuel economy and green credentials yesterday was pervasive, if not necessarily in all the models filling the DC Convention Center's halls, then at least in the ones that the companies emphasized. I found it remarkable that Chevrolet's new Camaro was touted for the 27 mpg (highway) fuel economy of its standard V-6--an engine unlikely to have been of much interest to the car's target demographic prior to last year's fuel price roller coaster--rather than its acceleration. And the new 40 mpg Cruze non-hybrid compact, already on sale in Europe, garnered as much attention. The proximity of so many cars delivering appreciably better mileage than most of those on the road in the US today to the really high-tech cars such as the Volt, Fisker Karma, Tesla Roadster, and Mini-E kept reminding me of a phrase I heard several times from the engineers from Bosch, in the context of their diesel technology: a bridge to the future, in the form of cars built with the best of today's technology, at an affordable cost, while the engineers and early adopters drive down the cost of the next generation everyone wishes we could all have now, but can't.

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