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Detroit auto show reveals electric future

DETROIT-- The North American International Auto Show held this week was positively electric in an economically dark world in which buyers shun gas guzzlers and manufacturers struggle to go green as well as convince consumers to fork over tight funds. There was less talk of biofuels and almost no talk of hydrogen than in previous years, with the emphasis instead on quick environmental fixes that can be implemented within five years—if not immediately.

There were three real classes of environmental innovation on display here: traditional hybrids, extended-range electric vehicles, and pure electric vehicles. Every step represents another leap away from the internal combustion engine, a goal that wasn't even a goal a mere three years ago.

Hybrid vehicles—each representing a significant advance in the technology—made a strong showing, , including the all-new Prius, the all-sleek Honda Insight, and the Ford Focus Hybrid. All of the hybrids rolled out here are expected to be available to consumers by the end of the year.

Ford says that its Fusion brings a higher mileage-per-gallon to a larger more luxurious car, getting at least five more miles per gallon of gas in the city than its Toyota rival, the Camry Hybrid. Toyota's new Prius offers updated styling, the highest mileage of any car on the road, and a slightly larger interior and faster engine than its predecessor.

The Honda Insight may have been the most important hybrid at the show, not because it's the most efficient car on the road (with MPG expected to be in the mid-40s) but because it's so inexpensive. With a base price of around $20,000, it costs around $4,000 less than the Prius, opening the hybrid market to a whole new segment of buyers.

Next we have the extended-range electric vehicle (E-REV). The public doesn't really know what to think about E-REVs, mostly because only two or three people have ever driven one. These new cars run entirely on electric power, but they contain a small gasoline generator to recharge the batteries when they run low. The idea is that you get all of the benefits of an electric car for the first 40 miles or so (which is longer than the average commute of Americans) but you don't have to worry about running out of power and being stuck without a way to recharge.

The idea of an E-REV may be fantastic, but it's apparently tricky to build. Nonetheless, several automakers are working on E-REV prototypes, and Chevy's E-REV (the Chevrolet Volt) is set to be on the road in 2011.

General Motors, it seems, looking to double-down on the E-REV idea, released a concept for a Cadillac E-REV coupe dubbed the Converj. The stated intent of the Converj is to show that its E-REV system is more about innovation than compromise. I imagine GM is also encouraged by the idea of selling these cars for a profit, since they're banking on losing money on the Volt for at least a few years.

Chrysler has also jumped on the E-REV bandwagon, showcasing a large concept sedan, the 200C. Of course, the company also admitted it may build the 200C with a regular internal combustion engine. Honestly, Chrysler's display smacked a bit of green-washing, sometimes literally, with two different Jeeps sporting green "extended-range electric vehicle" paint jobs, but absolutely no stats on how the vehicles would be powered and whether Chrysler had done any of the work to figure out if it could make such a large car into an E-REV.

We've seen plenty of E-REV and hybrid cars at recent auto shows, but fully electric ones have been noticeably absent. Major manufacturers have been slow to adopt pure EV technology for a variety of reasons. Among them: batteries are heavy, most cities (where EVs would be most useful) don't have charging ports, and carmakers have had a hard time keeping costs down while delivering a manageable sized vehicle.

But this year shows just how jittery today's auto industry may be. Ford announced an ambitious EV plan, saying that it would have a commercial electric van on the road in target markets by 2010 and an electric car (based on the Fusion platform with a 100 -mile range for urban drivers) in 2011. Ford also said it's in talks with several major municipalities (no word on which ones) about developing re-charge stations.

While GM is putting most of its eggs in the Volt basket, I asked Denise Gray, GM's chief of battery development, whether the idea of totally electric cars was an insane one. "It's neither crazy nor insane," she said. "In fact, I think its right round the corner." And GM is poised to take advantage. The company announced at the show that it plans build its own electric vehicle battery manufacturing plant, and the world's largest automotive battery testing facility. GM seems to finally see a future in electric cars.

Toyota apparently agrees. It was the only company at the show that had more than plans to show. While its FT-EV is only a concept right now (largely based on Toyota's iQ microcar), Toyota has promised that the FT-EV, or a car like it, will be for sale in America by 2012.

The bottom line: This is the first auto show I've attended where it seems that manufacturers and car enthusiasts agree that the future of automobiles is electric.

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