Green horizons

Jan 16, 2008 at 12:00 am

If this year's big North American International Auto Show had to be summed up in just one word, that word might be schizophrenic. But that doesn't quite get it. If the auto doctor practiced psychiatry, chances are good he'd diagnose this patient as having multiple personality disorder.

You have the past and future jumbled together with a confused present.

Hauling echoes of the past is the 2009 Corvette ZR1. Considered one of the hits at this year's show, it keeps alive the high-horsepower tradition established during Detroit's muscle-car glory days. With a V-8 engine, this "super Vette" will have more than 620 horses under the hood and a price tag around $100,000. Its estimated 25 miles per gallon on the highway doesn't sound all that bad compared to the old gas-guzzling days, but up against hybrids that promise 50 miles per gallon or better, it is a hallmark of conspicuous consumption.

And then there was the introduction of the 2009 Dodge Ram pickup, a bruiser of a vehicle that made its debut in the company of 100 longhorn cattle being herded outside of Cobo Center by cowboys. Talk about reclaiming the past.

As for the future, it's already here. At least a piece of it is. Honda says it will begin leasing a limited number of its FCX Clarity fuel-cell vehicles to customers in the Los Angeles area this year. Fuel cells convert hydrogen to electricity and produce water vapor as exhaust.

General Motors is a step behind. It plans to provide about 100 of its Equinox fuel cell vehicles to people in New York, Washington, D.C., and California to test-drive for free for two years. A company spokeswoman wouldn't say how long it would be before the cars would be generally available, but she did assure that the program was something much more than an experiment. "We fully intend to make this a reality," she said.

With fuel cells, the obstacle isn't just the technology under the hood, but the infrastructure to allow drivers to fuel up. That and developing an economical, environmentally friendly way to extract hydrogen from water.

Another Honda on display is the Civic CX NGV, which runs on compressed natural gas and can be refueled at home. Billed as the cleanest internal-combustion vehicle on the planet, the car is currently available only in New York and California.

If anything, this year's auto show drives home the point of just how diverse the effort to improve mileage and reduce greenhouse gas emissions is. Along with fuel cells and compressed natural gas, there are gas-electric hybrids, plug-in electric vehicles, cleaner-burning diesel engines and vehicles designed to run on a mix of ethanol and gasoline. The future, at least in the near term, looks like it is going to be a smorgasbord of choices for consumers.

This much is certain: With crude oil prices hovering around $100 a barrel and the federal government's new mandate of a 35 mile per gallon Corporate Average Fuel Economy standard by 2020 — along with growing concern about global warming on the part of the public — the change is only going to accelerate.

Hoping to put pedal to metal in terms of prompting innovation is the X Prize Foundation, which is offering a multimillion-dollar award (the exact amount has yet to be determined, but is likely to exceed $10 million, according to organizers) to the team that can "design, build and bring to market 100 mpg equivalent vehicles that people want to buy, and that meet market needs for price, size, capability, safety and performance."

More than 50 teams from seven countries have already signed letters saying they intend to participate in the competition, which is scheduled to begin early this year.

"We don't think the auto industry is moving fast enough," explained the organization's Sarah Evans when asked why the foundation chose this issue. It had previously sponsored a competition to launch the world's first privately funded rocket into space. The focus on a more earthly competition was deemed important because our consumption of oil is unsustainable, politically destabilizing and a significant factor in global warming.

"We want to break through on an order of magnitude, not just incrementally," said Evans. "And the time to do that is now."

Curt Guyette is Metro Times news editor. Contact him at 313-202-8004 or [email protected]