Column: On The Road

Domestic automakers could take eco-technology lead
Rob Cleveland

Rob Cleveland

If you’re one of the many Prius owners in Ann Arbor and enjoy lording your environmental sensitivity over other drivers on the road, look in the rear-view mirror. The Big Three are unveiling new concepts and new plans to put some of the most environmentally sensitive vehicles out to market, meaning Prius owners may have to trade in for a Chevy, Ford or a Chrysler if they want to continue to hold the automotive moral high ground.

New model announcements made at this year’s Detroit Auto Show (also known as the North American International Auto Show in deference no doubt to the NAFTA agreement so loved by the UAW) were prolific, despite a pall created in the wake of December’s brutal and sometimes embarrassing executive testimony in Washington D.C. Most of the green news generated came out of General Motors, Ford and Chrysler, who all tried their best to put on a positive face as U.S. auto sales continue their free-fall.

GM arguably is the furthest along in new tree-hugger-technologies with its Chevrolet Volt – an all-electric vehicle designed to run only on advanced lithium-ion batteries powering an electric motor. Hybrids, on the other hand, employ both electricity from batteries and an internal combustion engine coupled to the wheels, using different modes depending on the power demand. The Volt does burn gas, but only to gin up some electricity via an onboard generator if you exceed the vehicle’s 40-mile range and find your orange extension cord just won’t reach to the shoulder of M-14 from home. (Note that GM says 40 miles is the typical commute for Americans, so send a memo around at work asking where you can plug in your new EV and watch the executive team start wringing their hands about utility costs. It will be fun.)

GM has been talking about the Volt for a while now, insisting it will be available next year in showrooms – if the company can make it through 2009, of course. At this year’s auto show, GM had a spate of related announcements, from partnerships with Korean-owned LG Chemical for battery cell technology to a new facility for battery pack manufacture in southeast Michigan. GM also announced a cooperative agreement with local star battery expert Ann Marie Sastry from the University of Michigan to train engineers to enhance their automotive lithium-ion battery knowledge. And GM unveiled a new Cadillac concept based on the all-electric Volt, the Converj. Despite the underwhelming name choice, the vehicle itself was a hit at the show.

If GM manages to get through the next 12 months and can actually bring these vehicles to market, only the most hypocritical senators and hybrid owners will shun what is an evolutionary change in automotive technology, after years of berating GM for only producing gas guzzlers. Costwise, GM says the Volt’s gasoline equivalent is about eight cents a gallon, provided you don’t dip into that onboard generator. But wait, there’s more: zero emissions. If you have a problem with air quality standards after the Volt hits showrooms, you’ll have to take it up with DTE Energy and anyone else producing electricity from coal or natural gas, not Detroit.

Of course, batteries are the new flavor of the month in the auto business, after brief courtships with hydrogen and then ethanol before the economy went off the rails. Plans for a hydrogen infrastructure or an ethanol economy will have to be put on hold as few people are looking to put money into even their 401(k), let alone trying to ramp up a new ethanol distillery. Luckily, not all of the eco-tech unveiled this year represents such a radical and expensive departure.

Ford’s new Lincoln C concept vehicle, a confusing attempt to luxury-up an entry for the box-truck-crossover market made hip by Toyota’s popular Xion XB, isn’t likely to win best in show for design. Underneath the hood, however, lies Ford’s true inspiration – a gasoline-burning 1.6-liter turbo-driven “EcoBoost” engine with a dual-clutch six-speed transmission and stop/start technology that cuts the engine when you are idling, waiting for that intolerable light to change. All of that boosts the engine performance to 43 mpg. If just 20 percent of American cars and trucks hit this fuel economy standard, President Obama could send a note to both Iran and Venezuela saying “Thanks, but we’re good on oil just now.” With that out of the way, let’s talk foreign policy.

Ford also says it is working on an all-electric vehicle, although they haven’t announced which vehicle specifically they might use and even in the best of circumstances, that car probably won’t materialize until at least 2012.

Even the diminutive Chrysler still is barking about its electric vehicles, insisting – however unconvincingly – that it will be first to market with an EV. Sadly, as Chrysler leans against the ropes and suffers the twin body blows of a cash crisis and consumers who “just say no” to spending, the company’s new 200C concept electric is not only battery driven with a generator on board like the Volt, but also one of the design highlights of the show with the potential to make a great midsize sedan regardless of what is under the hood. It would be grand indeed to see this perennial underdog rally in its darkest hour to bring this electric to market, if for no other reason then to let Bob Nardelli, Chrysler’s CEO, drive it to Washington D.C. and double park in front of the Capitol Building. Let the Capitol Police service tow it away and they’ll have enough PR to sell 50,000 units in the first year. America loves a comeback. Just ask Kurt Warner.

Dyed in the wool importophiles still want to insist that the Big Three are lagging in quality, a perception built up over decades, with the production of each scrappy car shedding parts like dandruff over its brief life to 70,000 miles. But the latest JD Powers surveys have many domestic models at the top of the quality scale now, and even the hardliners at Consumer Reports, who for years have trounced the Big Three in their reviews, have a domestic vehicle in their 2008 Top 10 for the first time since 2005. Big Three executives have been talking for some time about “closing the quality gap.” According to the data, that might just have happened.

Sadly, the drop in gasoline prices, coupled with the incredibly short memory demonstrated by most American consumers, could take some of the zing out of the all-electric car market. The good news: oil companies and oil-producing countries are greedy and thus gasoline isn’t likely to stay cheap. How ironic that GM now may be hoping gas prices actually go up.

So while “Buy American” is a fairly hollow rallying cry these days, with GM’s recent investments back into Michigan, and the possibility of an all-electric in showrooms next year, tomorrow’s Prius may look like today’s domestic sport-ute. We the people already own some of GM and Chrysler anyway and people are talking about the importance of buying local these days. So if things go to plan, look for me in my new Chevy Volt next year…pulled along by my high horse when I can’t even afford to pay the electricity bill.

About the author: Rob Cleveland is CEO of ICON Creative Technologies Group and a co-owner of Vinology Restaurant in Ann Arbor.


  1. By Bob Martel
    January 24, 2009 at 10:15 am | permalink

    Hi Rob,
    I’ve been waiting for the hybrid Fusion for over a year now. Finally, a mid-sized domestic hybrid that comes in a subtle yet useful package! I know that it may be made in Mexico, but what the heck, we North Americans have to stick together! Further, the car line has a quality rating that surpasses the Japanese and German competition!

  2. January 24, 2009 at 11:47 am | permalink

    RE: Chevrolet Volt – an all-electric vehicle

    Your article has major discrepancies vs. the truth. The GM Volt is not “all-electric.” The GM smoke and mirrors Volt car needs gasoline to enable the vehicle to go forward. If a car needs gasoline, please do not call it an electric car, it is insulting to our intelligent. The Volt is not ‘an all-electric vehicle.”

  3. January 24, 2009 at 2:10 pm | permalink

    Denis. With respect to your issue on nomenclature, the GM Volt does indeed run only on electricity, and can do so for 40 miles making it an all-electric vehicle. If you, or anyone else so choose, you can drive within those confines between charges and be perfectly happy, never burning a drop of gasoline. However, given the changes in battery performance based on temperature, and the unknown, unscheduled realities of life, someone along the line is bound to see their charge depleted before they can plug in. Hence the on board generator that, to be clear, does not turn the wheels, but rather recharges the battery. I wonder what your customers will do when you sell them a Neighborhood all-electric vehicle (someday) and they exceed the 30 mile limit those cars can provide. Introducing something as radically different as an electric vehicle without addressing the practical, real-world scenarios of everyday driving is precisely what has kept the EV industry confined to evangelicals in glorified golf carts with poor range and laughable top speeds. You seem to be willing to suffer the indignities of substandard transportation rather than accept the reality of mass market appeal required to get proper electric vehicles to the showrooms.

  4. January 25, 2009 at 8:32 am | permalink

    I’m happy to be riding these days in a California built, half million dollar diesel-electric hybrid with a GM Allison transmission.

  5. By Bob Martel
    January 25, 2009 at 1:29 pm | permalink

    Ah, yes. The good old AATA!

  6. January 26, 2009 at 11:03 am | permalink

    Ed, the way you describe the bus makes it sound like a luxury ride. Maybe someday it will be a hydrogen bus – at over a million a pop.