Get Ready for Less Boring Green Cars

Until now green cars have had all the sex appeal of a Birkenstock sandal, but carmakers are beginning to change that

Everybody wants clean air, but the increasing public and political clamor to cut greenhouse gases and raise fuel efficiency is giving the world's automakers an ulcer.

Executives in Detroit, Toyoda City, Stuttgart, and Turin are passing the Prilosec because times are already tough enough for the auto industry. Stricter standards for CO2 emissions in Europe and a new 35-mpg Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standard in the U.S. mean they have to sort out which alternative fuels hold the best solutions, in terms of cost, technology, regulations, and customer acceptance. And they have to pay for it out of their increasingly dwindling profits.

But there's nothing like having a gun to your head to stir the creative, and gastric, juices. The recent North American International Auto Show, which ended Jan. 27, featured an impressive array of fuel-efficient, green-themed technologies (BusinessWeek.com, 1/16/08), including clean diesel, biodiesel, ethanol, gasoline-electric hybrids, diesel-electric hybrids, plug-in hybrids, two-mode hybrids, and fuel cells.

The pressure to succeed has produced unexpected juxtapositions, like Audi's diesel-powered super-sports car, which to some people may sound like an oxymoron. Instead of the mighty V8 and V12 gasoline engines the U.S. market has come to expect, Mercedes-Benz (DAI) displayed a greener, though less exciting, four-cylinder diesel-hybrid version of the S-Class flagship. Even notorious Italian fuel hog Ferrari, whose 534-hp 612 Scaglietti rates a Hummer-like 9 mpg in the city and 16 mpg on the highway, showed a car that can run on 85% ethanol and 15% gasoline.

Plug-In Prospects

There were also a few surprises in Detroit, such as the introduction of a great-looking plug-in hybrid, the $80,000 Karma (BusinessWeek.com, 1/17/08), from Lake Forest (Calif.) startup Fisker Automotive. What makes it so special is the combination of great looks and innovative technology. CEO Henrik Fisker has devised a method of building the car's body separate from the bulky battery pack, which is installed underneath the car. "The battery never really gets put in the car," he said in a Jan. 14 interview, pointing out that by doing so it saves cost and complexity, and keeps the car's center of gravity low. However, the company is mum on most other details about the car, including how fast it is, and even where it will be built.

And yes, just like it sounds, a plug-in hybrid can be recharged from a plug, off household current. That gives it greater range than most of today's hybrids, which rely on a conventional motor to recharge the battery, but plug-in hybrids still have a conventional motor, too.

Toyota (TM), newly crowned the world's No. 1-selling automaker, also roiled the Detroit show by announcing it will introduce a fleet of hundreds of plug-in hybrids for research and development by 2010, in greater numbers than expected, and with lithium ion batteries. Toyota already has a small handful of plug-in hybrid prototypes around the world, with poorer-performing nickel-metal-hydride batteries. Other rivals, such as General Motors (GM), have been careful to avoid hard deadlines for introducing plug-ins with lithium ion batteries like the Chevrolet Volt (BusinessWeek.com, 1/7/07).

Lithium ion batteries produce a better range than other batteries, but there are still bugs to be worked out, especially the fact that they generate a lot of heat. Toyota also announced it is adding an assembly line in a joint venture with Matsushita's ( 2 Next Page

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