Saturday, January 15, 2011
Green Cars on Fire At Detroit Auto Show
The electric Ford Focus is just one in a growing number of hybrid and plug-in vehicles that are reshaping the automotive landscape.
The electrification of Motown was in full display this week at the 2011 Detroit Auto Show, which runs through January 23. In the past, press previews at the event have featured carnival-style new car announcements.
Not this year, but there was still a subdued sense that although Detroit may not yet be fully recovered from bankruptcy and recession, U.S. automakers are getting back on their feet. And electric cars are emerging as central to that rebirth.
The shift is best captured by GM’s all-in bet on the Volt, a plug-in electric hybrid sedan. It’s hard to understate the scope of GM’s conversion with the Volt. GM was poised to pioneer mainstream electric cars with its EV1 over a decade ago, only to curtail the program in a series of decisions made infamous by the documentary "Who Killed the Electric Car?"
By the mid 2000s, with sales of big SUVs and trucks spinning off proportionally big profits, I can recall senior GM executives disparaging Toyota’s then small-selling Prius as a bad business strategy, describing it as a costly kludge of electric and gas technologies whose price could never cover its cost to build.
Fast forward a few years. Toyota is the biggest carmaker in the world, and the Prius is a global hit. GM meanwhile is struggling back from bankruptcy and is earning kudos for rolling out an e-car that’s similar to the Prius in more than just looks. The Volt is a 60 mpg, four-door sedan that plugs in and runs on a combination of battery power, a gas engine. And it will cost $40,000, a price that -- just like early versions of the Prius -- critics have said can’t cover the true costs of its advanced technologies.
If GM failed to recognize the EV1’s potential, it’s not making the same mistake this time. Just as Toyota has benefited hugely from the green halo that the Prius lends the company’s reputation, GM seems to get that even if early Volts are money losers, the reputational benefits are enormous. Thanks to GM’s huge, years-in-the-making publicity campaign for the vehicle, the public is probably more aware of this car than any new vehicle in recent history, gas or electric.
For all the attention heaped on GM, Ford is also banking on a small fleet of new electric vehicles designed to appeal to a broader set of buyers. The sole U.S. automaker to avoid a government bailout, Ford introduced three new electric vehicles at the show. The most ambitious is the Focus Electric, an all-battery plug in sedan, which can roll 100 miles on a charge. It will cost around $30,000.
Ford also announced two new green micro-vans. The C-Max Energi (yes, with an "i") is a five-passenger "multi-activity" vehicle that -- like Chevy’s Volt -- can be plugged in at night to recharge, then run on only battery power or a mix of battery and gas for a total range of over 500 miles. Its sibling the C-Max Hybrid is a conventional hybrid -- similar to Toyota’s Prius -- that boosts its mileage by switching between battery and gas power and storing energy from braking in a big battery pack. Ford’s C-Max vehicles will hit markets in 2012, and pricing is as yet unavailable.
Even Toyota is hoping an electric shock can help rehabilitate its image. This may seem odd given that the world’s largest automaker has been building electric-gas hybrids for 15 years (the Prius debuted in 1997). Yet Toyota is struggling back from a series of embarrassing quality problems and high-profile recalls that damaged the reputations of its main Toyota and Lexus brands.
Its Prius line, meanwhile, remains untarnished. It is also the most widely-recognized and best selling eco-car in the world. Indeed, Toyota has announced a goal to make Prius the best selling "nameplate" in the world by 2020. Building on this pledge, in Detroit Toyota announced both bigger and smaller versions of the Prius, along with a plug-in hybrid to compete with Chevy’s Volt.
Returning to the question of "Who Killed the Electric Car?" it’s fitting to note that the maker of that documentary is putting the final touches on a sequel, "Revenge of the Electric Car," due in theaters this spring.