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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Motor Show Visits Motor City

Air Date: Week of

Chevrolet’s Volt (Courtesy of GM)

Automakers at this year's North American International Auto Show in Detroit unveil a series of promising new green technologies...but are any of them ready for the market? Living on Earth host Bruce Gellerman talks with IEEE Spectrum’s car expert John Voelcker from the showroom floor.


GELLERMAN: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Bruce Gellerman.

[MUSIC: David Grisman “Dawgy Mountain Breakdown (aka – NPR’s ‘Car Talk’ Theme)” from ‘Dawg Grass/Dawg Jazz’ (Warner Bros. – 1983)]

GELLERMAN: With apologies to those two knuckleheads, Tom and Ray, it’s now time for a little car talk. Toyota is poised to become the world’s largest maker of vehicles, leaving GM in the dust. Part of the reason for the Japanese car maker’s success is it’s domination of the hybrid market which has other car makers green with envy. But the race for fuel-efficient autos is far from over. Joining us from Motor City, home to the North American International Auto Show, is John Voelcker. He’s a correspondent with IEEE Spectrum and our man on the floor of the show.


VOELCKER: Hey Bruce.

GELLERMAN: Hey, I understand that this is the 100th anniversary of the Detroit Car Show.

VOELCKER: That’s right. Exactly 100 years ago in a beer garden in Detroit Henry Ford announced the Model T, which kicked off really the automotive century. So this is a very important show not only for Detroit, but for the automotive industry globally.

GELLERMAN: But why is it so important?

VOELCKER: There are only a handful of really global automotive shows: one in Tokyo, one in Frankfort, Germany. This is North America’s show where the entire industry comes together to show off its best concepts, its newest production vehicles.

GELLERMAN: What environmental themes have come out of this show so far?

VOELCKER: Several environmental themes. Of course, the biggest one is fuel economy or more broadly reducing reliance on petroleum. But more than that the emergence of some truly significant new technologies, in concept form, that will probably change the cars we drive in the next 5 to 20 years enormously.

GELLERMAN: What’s new in hybrid cars?

VOELCKER: A lot of hybrid developments. One GM has already launched and you’ll see them on the road this year, what they call their two mode hybrid. This is a hybrid for big vehicles. If you think about Priuses and Civics and things like that, they’re smaller cars. GM is putting its hybrid in its biggest, heaviest SUVs. And there, they say you’ll get 25 percent better mileage. These are things like Chevy Tahoe that can way up to three tons. So that’s a fairly major advance in hybrids. But probably the most significant car here and certainly the star of the show with the public and with the press is the Chevrolet Volt. Which is a plug-in hybrid, but totally different from any kind of hybrid we know of today.

Chevrolet’s Volt (Courtesy of GM)

VOELCKER: Today’s hybrids run on gasoline supplemented by electric power driven by batteries, ok? So you’re running most of the time on gas and occasionally the electric motor boosts the gas or you can run on electricity at low speeds for a very short time- a couple of minutes. The Chevrolet Volt is an electric car where it can run up to 40 miles on a lithium ion battery pack, same kind of batteries as in your cell phone. And it’s got an engine on board, but only to charge the batteries. That engine doesn’t drive the car. And the assumption is that you’ll use this car mostly in pure electric mode; no noise, no gasoline.

GELLERMAN: But John, who drives 40 miles a day?

VOELCKER: Well, 80 percent of Americans as it turns out commute a total of 40 miles or less to work and back. So, if you’re just using this car to get to work and back you might never use any gasoline. You might have infinity gas mileage.

GELLERMAN: I’m wondering weather it’s gas price or whether it’s environmental aspects that are driving the interest in these kinds of green cars. I mean if the price of gas came down you’d think people would be revolting, that is kind of doing away with the hybrids and electric cars?

VOELCKER: I think that’s a good point. I don’t think you can really separate out gas prices and environmental considerations. But it’s pretty clear over the last 30 years we’ve had what three, four fuel price shocks? The Detroit makers get the message. And more than that the more global the industry gets they see the rest of the world has really good small and medium sized cars in American terms. Small cars frankly were an afterthought for a long time for American makers, and that’s not going to be the case any longer. But it’s not to say that the Japanese are going to role over and play dead, or the Koreans, or for that matter there was a Chinese maker that exhibited here.

GELLERMAN: We’ve all heard about how the Chinese car market is growing by leaps and bounds, but China doesn’t have a large infrastructure of gas stations yet. Could they be leap frogging? That is, instead of building gas stations go right to fuel cell stations, electric power stations?

VOELCKER: That’s an excellent question and it’s very much a topic of consideration here. If you talk to some of the executives, off the record, you get the feeling that in fact China may go directly to a hydrogen economy. Um, because as you pointed out they don’t have the network of filling stations and if you’re going to build filling stations you don’t just have to put gasoline pumps in you can put other kinds of pumps in, or you can build them around other kinds of fuels to start with. It’s not clear yet, and as China’s auto market grows by leaps and bounds they’re going to have to figure that out pretty quickly. I think everybody is going to wait to see what happens. This is a case where the Chinese government still has an enormous amount of sway in deciding that and in some ways deciding China’s energy foot print for a while to come as the Chinese buy cars to bring themselves to the penetration of car ownership that the rest of the world has.

GELLERMAN: John, I want you to look down the road a bit at next year’s auto show, early 2008. What do you think we’re going to be talking about then?

VOELCKER: Well, one of the things is you see concepts every year. And one of the wraps against a number of automakers has been you show us great stuff, cool technology, but we never see it in production. It’s never at the dealer. So one of the things to look for next year is you have a number of exciting technologies have there been commitments to produce them? Have there been dates? Are we seeing a radical show car like the Volt translated into a production vehicle that they can test? In other words, great concepts- show us the meat. Show us when it’s coming. Tell us when we can buy it.

GELLERMAN: Hey John, thank you very much.

VOELCKER: My pleasure. Thank you Bruce.

GELLERMAN: John Voelcker is a big wheel, and a correspondent with i-triple e Spectrum.



North American International Auto Show, Detroit

Wired blog on the Chevy Volt

Chinese Made Cars


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