Down a new road 

Walking through the big North American International Auto Show at Detroit’s Cobo Center, I can’t shake the feeling that I am experiencing something rather odd, maybe even schizophrenic. The glitz and glamour, the shimmering, iridescent colors, the futuristic designs — you see here what the marketers talk about when they say the business of pushing cars is the selling of dreams.

Even someone like me, who was never what you’d call a “car guy,” can’t help but marvel, slack-jawed, at all the splendor and extravagance packed under one very large roof.

But all that is only half of the odd sensation that has me in its grip. There is also another vision, one of a greener future, taking root here. It won’t be quite so apparent to most of the multitudes flocking here this week, because the message is largely subdued, buried under the engines of just a few cars mixed in among the hundreds on display.

For years, those who hoped for a greener automotive future were perpetually waiting for tomorrow. It was always there, on the horizon, near enough to see but always just a little too far away to touch.

Not any more.

Which is why I have this feeling of straddling two different automotive worlds. There is the old world where vehicles largely reflect the attitude that fossil fuels will never run out, and the threats of air pollution and global warming are something only the Chicken Littles of the environmental movement fret over.

The apogee of this view can be found in the Ford F-650 Super CrewZer, a true monster of a truck. I stand there looking up at it, marveling at its size and power. It is massive, with a 300-horsepower diesel engine capable of hauling a 15-ton trailer. Its two 65-gallon fuel tanks send a message that comes close to saying its fuel efficiency should be rated at gallons per mile.

With a sticker price of $90,000, it costs more than my house, which it could probably pull down the road without breaking a sweat.

At the other end of the scale, reflecting an entirely different worldview, are the tiny three-wheelers produced by Corbin Motors. Next to the F-650, these little electric vehicles look like toys. The Sparrow model costs a little less than $15,000, had a top speed of 70 mph and can travel up to 60 miles before requiring a recharge.

It is a nifty little vehicle — a steady stream of admirers during the press preview last week talked about how “cute” the car is. They are currently being cranked out at a rate of two per day at Corbin’s California factory; the 2-year-old company needs to sell only five per day to turn a profit. According to Michael D’Andrea, head of sales for Corbin, the car uses only about a penny’s worth of electricity per mile and produces zero emissions.

Until recently, the Sparrow and other battery-powered electric vehicles were virtually the only option available to those who needed a car but wanted it to be as environmentally friendly as possible. But these cars also represent why such vehicles have had a difficult time gaining widespread acceptance. Look at the palm-sized Sparrrow and try convincing anyone you would feel secure zipping down the highway in one while an F-650 Super CrewZer tailed close behind. Larger electrics, such as GM’s EV1, made it almost a necessity to also own a conventional car to handle the load for longer trips.

The naysayers were right. You couldn’t cram the large numbers of consumers going gaga over their big ol’ SUVs into something like a Sparrow.

Which is what makes the Honda Insight and Toyota Prius on display at the auto show so significant.

These are hybrid vehicles that combine electric motors with gas-burning internal combustion engines (ICE). The two-seat Honda gets up to 70 miles per gallon, while the five-passenger Prius is billed at achieving as much as 50 miles per gallon. The electric motor, powered by batteries that are recharged while the car is driven, kicks in when added power is needed or the car is stopped in traffic. Along with the fuel efficiency, the technology allows exhaust emissions to be cut by as much as 90 percent.

These cars, say experts, offer a bridge to the future. Unlike the promises of the past, the hope they provide is tangible, the technology both available and practical.

“We are on the cusp of change,” says Ron Cogan, publisher of industry newsletter called the Green Car Journal (www.greencars.com). “The transition is beginning.”

What has Cogan and others convinced that we are witnessing the start of something new is that a variety of automakers have production plans for these vehicles. We’re not talking concept cars that may appear someday years down the road.

Ford and General Motors — the world’s two largest automakers — announced that they will start selling hybrid SUVs by 2004.

Because the wildly popular SUVs guzzle so much gas, the 25 percent to 30 percent increase in fuel efficiency created by converting them to hybrids represents a considerable leap forward.

“There’s no such thing as perfection, but we are getting closer to it,” says Dave Cole, director of the Center for Automotive Research at the Environmental Research Institute of Michigan in Ann Arbor. “Whatever you are doing with advanced technology, it has to be done in a way that makes economic sense to consumers. We’re starting to see the reality of these systems becoming economically viable. There is a very serious effort under way.”

It is, however, just the first step across a bridge to the future. Already, experts are looking down the road to technology that is promising but not yet road ready. We are talking about fuel cells, which use hydrogen to create electricity and yield exhaust that consists of nothing more than water vapor.

Despite all their advances, the hybrids still burn gas, and still emit greenhouse gases from the tailpipe.

“Hybrids are just an interim step,” explains Ferndale’s David Redstone, publisher of the Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Investor’s Weekly Newsletter (www.h2fc.com). “The car companies are all going hybrid crazy.” As a result, he says, the development of vehicles powered by fuel cells is set back.

“You won’t see a large number of fuel-cell vehicles for 10 years,” he predicts.

For people such as Don and Katy Duggan-Haas, however, the future — at least in its short-term, transitional form — is already here. The Parma, Mich., couple bought a Toyota Prius last year. At $22,000 for a model lush with options, the price was about what they would have had to pay for a comparable traditional car.

For them, the vehicle represented a practical way to put their environmental principles on the road.

“We wanted something that was a four-door, but also something that was environmentally friendly,” says Don, an assistant professor of education at Kalamazoo College. “We’re very happy with our choice.”

Somewhere down the road, he admits, there might be a fuel cell-powered vehicle, but for the time being the Toyota hybrid offers a cleaner, more efficient, and completely practical alternative to anything else comparable on the road.

“I don’t anticipate ever again buying a traditional ICE gas-burner,” he says.

Welcome to the future.

Curt Guyette is the Metro Times news editor. Call 313-202-8004 or e-mail cguyette@metrotimes.com

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