About a year ago, the United States was coming off a gasoline price shock, hybrid electric vehicles were the state of the art in production-car technology, and so-called plug-in hybrids were something only a few garage hackers and green extremists did for fun. The world’s largest car company, General Motors Corp., was locked in a boardroom fight while its North American products withered on the vine.
Ah, what a difference a year makes.
Today, the state of the art has passed beyond hybrids to technologies that seemed dead or ridiculously exotic even a year ago: pure electric-drive cars, including fuel-cell vehicles; and plug-in hybrids, which give the option of charging the hybrid’s batteries directly from a wall socket. Don’t look for such cars in showrooms any time soon, but notice that some pretty specific ideas about how they will enter the market are starting to emerge. And some of those ideas come from an unlikely source: GM itself.
But first, a reality check. Nearly 50 million cars and light trucks were sold by major manufacturers worldwide last year. None of those vehicles were pure electrics, and only 350 000--less than 1 percent--were hybrids of one sort or another. By 2025, says Philip Gott, a market forecaster at industry analyst Global Insight, 12 percent of light vehicles sold globally will be hybrids. Another 12 percent, he says, will be diesels.
Few analysts will even hazard a guess about when the first pure electrics will show up in the showrooms of major manufacturers. But GM is clearly striving to be the company that puts them there. The auto giant announced several concepts and test fleets last year, all based on a common set of components using electric motors to power the wheels.
Even as GM struggled to regain the high ground in tech, it took more than its share of public relations hits. There was the news that it will almost certainly have to cede to Toyota its crown as the world’s largest automaker, either this year or next. It’s a title GM has held for 70 years. The company shed more than 30 000 employees in North America last year (it pledged to reinvest some of the saved cash in technology).
Many observers remain skeptical of GM’s goals, pointing to the three decades the company spent aggressively battling any and all regulation in the fields of safety, emissions, and energy usage, while a litany of GM innovations languished in laboratories. There was the company’s romance with hydrogen, for example, exemplified by Hy-wire, GM’s 2002 fuel-cell car. Cars powered by hydrogen fuel cells remain in GM’s vision, but they’ve been recast as a piece of a larger strategy involving electric-drive vehicles.
Several other manufacturers have unveiled fuel-cell concept cars, including Honda with its latest FCX, which made our list this year. And there’s more than one way to spin wheels with hydrogen: BMW and Mazda each released roughly 100 production vehicles with the ability to burn hydrogen in their internal-combustion engines.
One of the biggest obstacles to hydrogen-powered cars is the lack of global hydrogen production and distribution infrastructure. But the auto industry was jolted by increasing speculation last year that as China builds a network of filling stations, it might possibly use them to distribute hydrogen as well as gasoline--jump-starting the global fuel-cell vehicle industry in a way impossible in more developed markets.
Such a strategy would assuage fears, as China goes mobile, of a vast greenhouse gas upsurge. The Chinese middle class is finding out what others learned decades ago: cars are bulwarks of personal freedom and, in the larger picture, of economic growth. Fortunately, cars today are cleaner, safer, more capable, and more reliable than ever.
That trend will go on, probably forever. Meanwhile, our collective vision of what constitutes a car is evolving with the technology that makes it go--and feeds our fantasies.