Getting charged at the Auto Show

News Hits scurried through the snow early Monday morning, eager to arrive at Cobo Center for the big North American International Auto Show. Unlike most assignments, covering the event is actually something we look forward to every year.

At least we used to.

With the possible exception of the annual conference held on Mackinac Island, we can think of no other event where reporters get access to so much free food and booze. Not run-of-the-mill fare, either. Chefs cutting thick slices from big slaps of beef, fancy stuffed mushrooms, ravioli filled with crabmeat. All washed down with cold German beer or a tasty merlot.

Oh, the wonder. News Hits isn't exactly sure why, but we know for certain it is a scientific fact that food and drink always taste better when someone else is picking up the tab. But once we got our credentials and made it into the main exhibition hall, we came face to face with another indisputable fact: Nothing good lasts forever.

We trudged around for nearly an hour. Looking in vain for a free feast. The best we could do was a mocha latte and biscotti. Another hour's worth of searching produced nothing more than a few bites of sushi. Even more outrageous was the seemingly complete dearth of alcohol. How the hell do they expect us to do our jobs if we aren't well-plied with some nice pinot noir?

As it turns out, being forced to cover the auto show completely sober provided an unexpected benefit. Still searching for free fare, we made our way down to the basement, where we were surprised to find the future — or various possible versions of it — making its way around a newly created course. Hybrids, all-electric vehicles, even a hydrogen fuel cell-powered car were lined up, waiting for journalists to take them for a short spin.

To get behind the wheel at the popular attraction, which was being sponsored by the Michigan Economic Development Corp., it was necessary to take and pass a Breathalyzer. Astonishingly, it's the first time News Hits ever had to stick one of these contraptions in its mouth and blow. Thanks to the de facto prohibition encountered above, the digital readout came up all zeros.

So we got behind the right-side wheel of the four-door Mitsubishi i-MiEV electronic plug-in. The reason for the steering wheel being on the right side, we learned from the helpful engineer sitting along side, is that the car is currently only available in Japan. It will go on sale in Europe this year, and will be available in the United States in 2011. 

If you've never driven an electric car, you will find the experience a little disconcerting. What throws the driver off is the lack of noise. There's no revving of the engine as the car accelerates. Push the pedal and the car speeds silently forward, zipping right along. 

We asked the helpful engineer his thoughts about the new Chevy Volt, an advanced hybrid-electric car that the whole auto world will be watching closely when it has its own limited launch later this year.

The i-MiEV has a range of between 60 to 80 miles before it needs to be recharged. The Volt, because it has a small on-board gasoline engine that can be used to recharge the car's batteries while it is being driven, can go up to 40 miles using just electricity but can travel about 300 miles on a single tank of gas. If the advance publicity is to be believed, it will get an astounding 230 miles per gallon. That's an immense leap forward when compared to hybrids already on the road.

One potential pitfall, the Mitsubishi engineer said, has to do with the Volt's gasoline engine. "What will happen if the car is just used for short commutes and the gas engine never has to kick in?" he explained. "Engines don't like to sit there not being used. They are meant to be run. It will be interesting to see if that becomes a problem or not."

For the past decade or so, we were used to seeing automakers touting their fuel-cell technology. The appeal was that only water vapor came from the tailpipe as hydrogen was converted to electricity. The problems with fuel cells were that the technology remained prohibitively expensive, creating hydrogen requires expending large amounts of energy, and a whole new infrastructure would need to be created to refuel the cars if people ever did start driving them. But that didn't stop the George W. Bush administration — which critics complained was helping Bush buds in the oil industry by supporting a technology with, at best, a long lead time — from plowing a ton of federal money into research, and slowing the development of battery-powered electric vehicles.

As the magazine Popular Mechanics reported in November, "When President George W. Bush announced federal support for fuel cell vehicles in 2001, every dollar spent — some $1.5 billion so far — was seen as a dollar lost to EVs." 

"We lost the better part of a decade and hundreds of millions that went down that rat hole," Paul Scott, a solar power consultant and founding member of the EV advocacy group, Plug In America, told the magazine. "The hydrogen people promised they'd bring all these fuel cell cars to market. Six years later, there are maybe 300 fuel-cell cars worldwide. By the end of this year, we'll have 1,200 new EVs on the road. Next year, it'll be tens of thousands."

Battery technology remains expensive. The Volt is expected to sell for about $32,000 when a promised $7,500 federal tax credit is figured into the cost. But then there will also be the cost of eventually replacing the batteries, which will be thousands of dollars. The consensus is that the price is going to remain high until these cars are mass-produced in a big way.

Even so, this year's auto show — which featured a section of the main floor dubbed Electric Avenue — seemed to have a turned a corner in more ways than one. The extravagances of the past are gone. The elaborate displays and sumptuous handouts to journalists have been scaled way back as automakers continue to deal with the economic meltdown. (And, even though as journalists we here at News Hits might bitch, as — like you — the new co-owners of the taxpayer-saved Chrysler and GM, we think this new frugality is a good thing.)

But the other difference is that fuel-saving technologies that existed at the margins of the industry — electric and hybrid vehicles — seem poised to enter the mainstream.

Jim Motavalli, an acclaimed environmental reporter and author of numerous books (and whose work has occasionally appeared in this rag), was in town for the auto show. We hooked up with him by phone, just to get the opinion of someone who knows what he is talking about. 

His impression, like ours, is that a long-awaited corner seems to have been turned. 

The Barack Obama administration has set a goal of putting 1 million plug-ins on the road by 2015. As U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi — flanked by a contingent of politicos who flew in from Washington, D.C., to be at the show — reducing dependence on foreign oil is critical to our national security.

And reducing greenhouse gas emissions is critical to the future of the human beings inhabiting this planet.

In terms of mass-marketing autos that don't rely primarily on the internal combustion engine to power them, the future may not be here exactly at this moment, but it looks to be approaching at a pace much quicker than at any time we can recall in our years of covering this show.

And, for better or worse, we make that observation completely sober.

News Hits is edited by Curt Guyette. Contact him at 313-202-8004 or [email protected]
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