Environmental columnist Lisa Lillelund cruises the Detroit auto show in search of green technology.
As I drive down Ford highway in a rental car heading to downtown Detroit for the annual North American International Auto Show, I am struck by the names of the roads I pass. Rosa Parks Boulevard and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. It is Jan. 19, 2009, Martin Luther King Day, and one day before a mixed race white/African American man will be taking the highest office in the United States.
I am supposed to be focusing on cars that are more environmentally friendly so that I can report on this to you in my column. I keep getting side tracked, thinking of the significance of being in Detroit — a place where many black people found freedom, jobs, acceptance and for some, even fame.
Detroit, where Motown music was born and where Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder lived.
Detroit, the Motor City, home of the Big Three Automakers, Henry Ford, Lee Iacocca, the Thunderbird, the Jeep, the station wagon and the Corvette.
Detroit, home of companies that employ thousands of Americans today and that helped us win World War II by building tanks and military supplies.
For many years, the auto industry in Detroit was a pride and joy of American manufacturing. What lies ahead? Is it possible for the American car manufacturer to disappear or to fall into foreign hands like the British car companies of Aston Martin, Jaguar, and Land Rover?
Then as I pass the signs for the Ford factory and drive by the headquarters of General Motors, my mind flashes to the faces I saw during the C-Span television coverage of the Big Three automobile bailout proceedings. I picture Rep. Ed Markey of Massachusetts asking tough but necessary questions and I remember cringing at some of the Big Three Auto CEOs’ responses to the congressmen. Like many people I know, I am conflicted about whether the bailout of the existing companies is the best way to help the car industry in Michigan succeed.
Suddenly I realize that reporting on the cars being exhibited at the Auto Show in Detroit is complicated. I cannot simply look at the features and prices of various models with detachment. I am an American. I want American cars to be better for the environment and to be desirable to American consumers.
Some of the first big exhibits one sees inside the Detroit auto show are the German manufacturers. The folks at VW and Audi tell me they are focusing on “clean diesel” instead of electric or hybrid propulsion and that is like “clean coal” to me. I want to kick our addiction to oil and coal so diesel doesn’t work for me.
Moving down the hall I see that BMW, who owns the popular Mini Cooper, is boasting a new car. Could it be an electric Mini Cooper? Yes. Now this car show is starting to get exciting for me. I learn that 500 lucky participants, mainly in California, will get to be part of a test focus group and that the car may be production-ready soon. While I am thrilled and envious that California will be building an infrastructure of battery charging stations, I live on the East coast so I head off in search of a more immediate solution.
The real technology stars of the 2009 show — for reducing emissions while still being practical — are the Plug-In Hybrids known as PHEVs or Plug-In Hybrid Electric Vehicles. With this technology, one can run on pure electric power for daily commutes ranging from 25 to 50 miles and the batteries can be re-charged each night by plugging into a standard 110 or 220 wall outlet.
For longer distances, however, the big benefit of the plug-in hybrid compared to the electric car is that you do not need to be near a charging station if you want your car to take you on an trip of 250 to 400 miles, thanks to advanced technology inside the car.
I decide to focus my column on plug-in hybrids, many of which will be available in 2010.
Across the aisle, I see a very sporty looking vehicle with a sign that says Plug-In Hybrid. After many years of admiring the fuel efficiency but not the styling of the Toyota Prius and Honda Civic, I go to investigate. Soon I am sitting in the Fisker Karma and can just imagine the comments my sons would make if they were with me, “Mom, this is a sick car.” Translation — very cool and attractive car.
Talking to one of Fisker’s marketing specialists, California gal Magdalena Figueroa, one can feel the enthusiasm of the employees for this cutting-edge technology and James Bond like design which can get 100 miles per gallon. I hear about the dynamic European/American management of Fisker based in California and Michigan and wish them well but am still in search of a car priced for mainstream car buyers. While the $ 80,000 + priced Fisker Karma is nice for a select few, it won’t have the large-scale impact on reduced fuel emissions of cars sold in higher volumes, so I move on.
Two kinds of plug-in hybrid technologies, series hybrids and parallel hybrids, are shown to me at the show. Thankfully General Motors is one of the companies that has been hard at work on a plug-in hybrid with their new Chevy Volt. I recommend to all readers to watch the movie, Who Killed the Electric Car. It is both entertaining and “shocking.” For those of you living on the North Shore, I donated a DVD to the Beverly Farms library. I hope that General Motors can successfully redeem itself with the Volt and other hybrids and electric cars it will make in the future after crushing all of its leased EV1 electric vehicles in 2005.
The Chevy Volt runs on series hybrid technology which means that the electric engine propels the Chevy Volt at all times and the batteries for this electric engine are charged during long distance trips by a small gas generator inside which takes regular or E 85 gas. The woman at the Volt booth told me that would translate to about 40-50 mpg of gasoline for long trips and no gasoline required for trips up to 40 miles. Purchase price? Around $40,000.Chrysler is coming out with some plug-in hybrids as well.
The Toyota Prius runs on parallel hybrid technology, which also offers improved mileage and reduced emissions. The Prius has both a fuel tank that supplies gas to the engine and a set of batteries that supply power to the electric motor. Both the electric motor and the gas engine can propel the car at the same time or independently.
In looking wisely to the future, the Ford Motor Company and the U.S. Energy Department announced in October 2008 that they will help fund a three-year project working with utility companies to commercialize plug-in hybrid vehicles to work well with the electric grid.
Clearly we possess the technology and innovative spirit in America to tackle these new opportunities. Now finally we have the political will in the White House to require us to achieve higher fuel economy standards. The most hopeful news to me is that President Obama seems to get it when he says, “We must help them (the auto industry) thrive by building the efficient cars of tomorrow.”
The time is here to build products for a more sustainable future — let’s hope that American businessmen and women seize these opportunities.
Lisa Lillelund is a regular columnist with the Beverly Citizen in Beverly, Mass. Lisa welcomes your comments at email@example.com.