Detroit’s Great Outdoors: This year’s North American International Auto Show highlights electric vehicle technology, dedicating the lower level of Cobo Center to an outdoor-type “encounter” called EcoXperience, where visitors can drive electric cars (see our EcoXperience slide show). If you attend the show, you’ll be able to sniff your way to EcoXperince because it’s currently home to 200 pine trees, 600 evergreens, 5,000 tulips and daffodils, and tons of mulch. There’s also a brick-paved, quarter-mile track that winds through the “forest” where you can test drive the vehicles, albeit very slowly.
Happy Days Ahead? A bipartisan Congressional committee headed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi toured the press preview in an effort to determine how well taxpayer money is being used in the bailout of GM and Chrysler. “We came to listen, to learn, to observe, to measure and to judge what has happened to the investment that was made,” Pelosi told showgoers. And although Pelosi and her crew of Republican and Democratic lawmakers struck an optimistic tone, none of them explained how they reached their conclusions. Nor did they say if any outside sources helped them to grasp the complex hybrid and electric vehicle technologies on the show floor. Did the committee reach its conclusions on its own? That’s a scary thought.
Detroit’s New Darling: Ford Motor Co. proved again that it’s the most popular American carmaker when it captured the coveted North American Car of the Year (Ford Fusion Hybrid) and North American Truck of the Year (Ford Transit Connect). That marked only the third time in 17 years that one manufacturer has won both titles. Ford’s popularity has skyrocketed since it steered its way through the economic crisis without begging for public assistance. Its vehicles have also climbed steadily over the past few years in virtually every independent reliability rating. At the Consumer Electronics Show two weeks ago, a CES executive introducing Ford CEO Alan Mulally went out of his way to state that “Ford is owned by shareholders, not by the federal government.”
The Electric Car Divide: Automakers are still split on the future of the pure electric car. Yes, they’re coming, they say, but when? Despite enormous amounts of hype surrounding the technology, many automakers see battery electrics as a tiny niche market for the next ten years or more, while others are already digging in. Nissan has made a major commitment to pure EVs. General Motors and Toyota, meanwhile, are betting on plug-ins, like the Chevy Volt, and traditional hybrids, like the Prius. At the show, Toyota said it is developing a Prius family marketing strategy that will include eight new hybrids in the next few years. Over time, the giant automaker will have hybrid version of every car in its lineup. Although Toyota will roll out a small electric urban commuter car “similar to the EV1” in 2012, it still sees its future in hybrids. Referring to battery-powered electrics, a Toyota spokesman told us: “We did that once with the RAV4 and the world wasn’t ready. We sold about 500 a year.” Toyota reps added that EV battery technology is still “hideously expensive” and lacks the energy density needed to appeal to a broad market. “It’s still true: With an electric car, the more range you want, the greater the weight and the greater the cost.”