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

Green Cars I: The Detroit Auto Show

Air Date: Week of

Emilia Askari takes Living On Earth on a tour of this year’s North American International Auto Show in Detroit, where she finds that auto makers seem to be taking eco-friendliness much more seriously.


CURWOOD: Now, if you happen to be in the market for a new car and you're concerned about the environment, you're living in frustrating times. You've heard about vehicles that run on alternative, cleaner-burning fuels, but unless you live in select areas of the country you can't find them. And even if you do locate eco-friendly cars, you may also find sticker prices well above your budget. But all that may be about to change. That's what reporter Amelia Escari discovered at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

(People milling about)

ESCARI: At previous auto shows it seemed like electric batteries would win the race to power clean-fuel cars of the future. General Motors' electric car, the EV-1, was first to reach the market 2 years ago. But the company has leased less than 600 of the vehicles. Consumers are not interested because they are expensive, have limited range, and require a long time to recharge. But those technical drawbacks have been overcome in a new kind of hybrid car that has both an electric motor and a gasoline engine. Soon they'll be in showrooms nationwide, and they're already drawing attention here at the auto show.

BOYD: This is Honda's gas-electric hybrid vehicle, code-named the VV, that's going to be out this fall.

ESCARI: Andy Boyd is with the Honda American Motor Company. He opens the door to a small car with an eye-catching, almost repulsive lime color --

(Door shuts)

ESCARI: -- and beckons me in.

(To Boyd) Well, the front seat is pretty roomy, but there's no back seat there, huh?

BOYD: Well that's right. The whole concept is a sporty 2-seater vehicle, so that although it's all new technologically, it's also a fun car to drive.

ESCARI: What takes up all that room in the back of the car, where there should be a back seat or a trunk or something?

BOYD: A lot of that room is taken up by the electronics of the system and the battery pack. Let's look under the hood and I'll show you what makes this car different.

(Door shuts)

ESCARI: Well, what do we have here?

BOYD: Well, it's a small motor, and it's a 1-liter engine, which is significantly smaller than most vehicles on the road today, which would be 2 liters or greater. But it's very efficient. It burns gasoline much cleaner, more efficiently, than most engines do. And it's got an electric motor attached to it. What that does is it acts kind of like an electric turbo-charger. That is, it provides additional boost to the engine when you're passing or pulling out from a light or climbing a steep hill.

(Door shuts)

ESCARI: How far can it go on one tank of gas?

BOYD: Well, this car is going to have more than twice the fuel economy of the most efficient car on the road today in the United States. On the highway it's going to do better than 80 miles per gallon, and so your highway cruising range would be in excess of 700, possibly 800 miles.

ESCARI: How many of these can you expect to sell in the near future, given that gas prices are so low?

BOYD: Well, that's one of the challenges, really. I mean, gasoline here in Michigan, for instance, is under a dollar a gallon, cheaper than bottled water. But that's certainly going to change.

ESCARI: The Honda hybrid's fall debut will be followed closely by Toyota's hybrid, the Priess. So far, domestic auto makers don't have anything comparable to offer. But they're working on it. John Wallace, Ford's Director of Alternative Fuel Vehicles, stands in front of a design of a Ford hybrid that's a few years down the road. He isn't concerned that the Japanese are first to market.

WALLACE: I think that it's a little early to count us out of the market. As you may have noticed, Honda said that they were hoping they might get somewhat under 5,000 vehicles a year. That's not exactly going to increase their share very much. This is just a first round of a long fight.

ESCARI: But it's a fight auto industry critics say domestic car makers may lose if they don't move fast enough. Lana Pollack is president of the Michigan Environmental Council. She worries that the Japanese companies will take the lead as they did introducing small cars during the 1970s energy crisis. And she thinks that Honda and Toyota understand the need for environmentally friendly vehicles, given growing concerns about climate change.

POLLACK: The Japanese get it. They are already building cars that are practical and have the alternative fuel. When they start capturing market share, the American companies are going to have to hustle.

ESCARI: For many in the auto business, however, the reality is that right now 51% of their sales and most of their profits come from big, brawny sport utility vehicles and light trucks.

COLE: I think the auto industry in a way is kind of like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

ESCARI: David Cole heads the University of Michigan's Office for the Study of Automotive Transportation. He says that despite the gas guzzlers' popularity at auto shows like this one, the industry has its eye on a very different future.

COLE: I think what they recognize is that they're at the threshold, right now, of potentially obsoleting the products that they have in the marketplace. They see the possibility for this technology to become economic, commercial, and able to literally redefine the modern passenger vehicle. But at the same time, they're going to sell trucks and sport utility vehicles because that is, frankly, where they're going to generate the capital to invest in this advanced technology that is so promising.

ESCARI: Meanwhile, auto makers are making some effort to produce traditional cars that better for the environment. They're improving fuel efficiency and tailpipe emissions and increasing the use of recycled materials. But that doesn't mean that regulators are going easy on the auto industry. Next month the Environmental Protection Agency is planning to announce new regulations that will require auto makers to reduce tailpipe emissions dramatically by 2004. Government officials are also talking about giving consumers tax breaks for buying alternative fuel cars. The University of Michigan's David Cole says that kind of incentive, coupled with technological breakthroughs that make hybrids cheaper, will significantly change auto-buying habits.

COLE: When those economics begin to come together, I think we'll see just one of the most gigantic revolutions in automotive technology that we have ever seen since the history of this vehicle. And personally I don't think we're that far away from it. I think it really kicks off in the middle part of the next decade.

ESCARI: Auto makers here say they're investing in environmentally-clean technology now because it's going to be profitable down the line. That means alternative-fueled cars may be common by the end of the next decade. For Living on Earth, I'm Amelia Escari at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.



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