Show Recap: Detroit Goes Electro-tastic!

Slammed by the economic crisis, most carmakers showed hybrid or electric vehicles

PHOTO: JOHN VOELCKER

Detroit—Amid a meltdown in consumer credit and the widespread assumption that Chrysler was on its last legs—with General Motors not far behind—the North American International Auto Show held here saw electric car and hybrid vehicle flashed on video screens throughout the event.

The withdrawal of several carmakers, including Nissan, gave every exhibitor a space on the main floor of Detroit’s battered Cobo Hall convention center. This provided two green start-ups--Tesla, with its electric Roadster, andFisker, with its sleek Karma plug-in hybrid—with far greater visibility than they might have expected. The same applied to Chinese manufacturersBYD andBrilliance as well.

Much discussion centered on the fates of GM and Chrysler. Just days before, each had received its first dollop of low-interest loans from the U.S. government. GM staged a procession of present and future high-mileage offerings, including the close-to-being-overexposed Chevrolet Volt. Then the company followed it up with a surprise: the Cadillac Converj concept coupe [see slide show], built on the same extended-range electric mechanicals as the Volt.

Chrysler, too, pulled off a surprise: the restrained, tasteful Chrysler 200C concept. Mixing a variety of Chrysler and electric themes, the car was called a plug-in hybrid, although power-train details were suspiciously minimal. Yet it might not matter. Widespread speculation that Chrysler’s owner, Cerberus, is desperately trying to sell, shut down, or find a partner for the weakest of the ”Detroit Three” means the elegant 200C might never see the light of day.

GM also announced it had selected LG Chemto provide the cells that will go into battery packs for the Volt and its offshoots. LG Chem, long rumored to be the winner, had competed with A123Systems for the cell contract. Those cells will be manufactured in Korea, at least initially. But GM stressed it would continue to work with A123 [see ”Lithium Batteries Take to the Road”] on future products.

GM also announced it will manufacture the Volt packs in southeast Michigan, subject to negotiations—read ”tax concessions”—with local authorities. The company will enlarge its existing battery test facility in Warren, Mich., which at 2880 square meters (31 000 square feet) will become the largest automotive battery lab in the United States. And, to ensure a steady supply of automotive battery engineers, GM will join with the University of Michigan to create a new automotive advanced battery lab in Ann Arbor, Mich., along with a specialized engineering curriculum.

The green-car theme was hammered home in what had been the vast, vacant basement of Cobo Hall. Desperate show organizers chose to use the basement for an unusual commodity in this horsepower-hungry town: green cars. Crowds waited up to an hour to enter the ”EcoXperience,” a test track one-eighth of a mile long that took up the entire 6503-m2 area (70 000 square feet), winding through waterfalls, flowers, and trees. Show-goers could drive various hybrid, electric, and hydrogen fuel-cell cars (slowly) with carmaker reps or professional drivers next to them pitching the product. This was the first time Detroit has offered a section for green cars, as other shows have—including last summer’sLondon Motor Show—but it fit neatly with the prevailing ethic. Seemingly every manufacturer on the floor described its plans for hybrid, plug-in hybrid, or battery electric cars, and it was the rare maker—Mazda for one—that ignored electric drive entirely for good old-fashioned combustion engines.

But not all carmakers are convinced of the merits of electric drive; many Europeans advocate clean diesels as a much better way to cut fuel consumption and emissions. While Audi announced a hybrid version of its Q5 small sport utility for 2011, it pointed out that diesels cost less to develop and far less to build than hybrid systems. The company’s lukewarm attitude surfaced in a quote from Wolfgang Hatz, head of power-train development for the VW group. ”We have to do hybrids in order to show people that we are able to do them,” he said, noting that the Q5 will compete in a segment that includes the upcoming Lexus RX450h hybrid SUV.

About the Author

John Voelcker, IEEE Spectrum’s automotive editor, has covered automotive technology for 25 years.

To Probe Further

For more on the Detroit Auto Show, see Slideshow: Electric Cars Rule Detroit Auto Show

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