18 Jan

The Detroit Auto Show does the electric shuffle

I love fast cars. Pretty cars as well. I despise econo-boxes. I love anything electric. Because I hate the fact that after 40 years, our cars still get basically the same gas mileage.

So when my stepdad asked if I wanted to travel up to the Detroit Auto Show, along with my younger brother, I signed up out of a desire to see the Chevy Volt.

After some shenanigans in getting parked we meandered around Cobo center.

As you might expect, there were sexy fast cars:

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Mercedes, BMW, Chevy with its Camaro, Ford and the Mustang, even a Ferrari and a Maserati were there. As someone who has a penchant for low-to-the-ground, nimble vehicles, it’s fun seeing cars like the new Audis. I’m always game for a trip to see cars like that.

But the truth is, I suspect the Detroit Auto show is more about what consumers in general can expect for the years ahead, and the reason I wanted to attend was that I had a suspicion that the tenor for this year was going to have a strong focus on alternative fueled cars, more so than you’d expect from a mainstream consumer focused show. Because 2011 is a big year for vehicles aiming to bring high miles-to-the-gallon into the mainstream.

The first one we ran into was the Smart Car, something I found a bit of pointless vehicle. With an MPG not all that different from a Hyundai but twice the cost and a third of the usable space? What’s the point? You’re not saving the environment, helping your wallet, *and* you’re all scrunched up. The only argument that makes sense is that it’s easy to park:

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That being said, Smart finally introduced the electric Smart, which is what I understand the original concept for it had been:

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As a 66 mile range commuter city car, easy to park in tight spots, it sort of makes sense. At $44,000, it’s more expensive than a Chevy Volt, though. WTF? Additionally, Smart faces a major uphill climb in convincing consumers it’s safe to drive in (it is, people just look at it and assume it is not). You can see by the signage how hard they’re working against this perception:

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Smart did have an electric scooter prototype displayed, as well as a bike, but no information on when they’d go on sale or how much they’d cost. If pricing is anything like their car, expect it to be twice the cost of any other similar option.

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Next up I swung in on Tesla Motors and got to touch a Tesla Roadster.

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It’s the car that stopped people from assuming electric cars were slow and fugly as fuck. This is how America works. Sexy sells, and green-oriented hair shirt environmentalism is not how you sell a car. Designing a car that makes people want to pose with it (I couldn’t get a shot without people taking their pictures next to it) is how you sell the viability of electric to mainstream America. Thank you Tesla, the vibe at this show is in part, thanks to your getting people excited about electric cars.

Tesla had a partial frame of their S-coupe their as well:

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VW had the next electric car I saw displayed, the blue-e-motion (seeing all these electric car chargers displayed was amazing):

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It’s basically an electric Golf that can go up to 84MPH and gets a range of 84 miles. Sadly, it’s planned for 2013 and there’s no information about price. Still, it was one of many displayed electric models that seemed to add up to a sense that we may well be on a cusp moment.

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Toyota’s plug in hybrid is one I’ve been following carefully. The concept is one that I like, it eliminates ‘range anxiety’ of battery-only vehicles by letting you drive 13 miles on electric only, and then the normal hybrid system the Prius has kicks in. For many, this would eliminate a lot of quick trips that use gas. Furthermore, Toyota, unlike Smart, say, realizes that customers aren’t just vomiting spare cash all over the place, and they try to keep the price of their Prius’s in the $16-$26,000 range (you know, realistically purchasable for a larger range of customers) which is why the more limited range on electric only, though they’re estimating low $30s.

It’s also not coming out until 2012. I wouldn’t be surprised if they up the initial range a bit. The average American commute is 16 miles. Get the Prius into that, you have a marketing campaign.

For me the sleeper surprise was Ford, who’ve been working hard to change themselves over the last two years. This was really evident with their very wide and integrate hybrid options and now electric options. Ford is not making a special ‘green car,’ but just rolling the option out, it seems.

Planned for later this year, the Focus Electric is a 100 mile range vehicle that they’re hoping to offer for $30k (22.5K after tax credit), putting this car firmly in the affordable range.

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This was the center of the Ford display, a chance for people to line up and ride the Focus Electric. And hearing the smooth whine of an electric motor moving past me was wild. Three years ago, I wouldn’t have believed that I would be at the biggest *auto* show and see from almost all the major manufacturers such a strong push for these sorts of cars.

Last, but not least, was the car that one could make a case for being the star of the show. A lot of people were crowded around, and GM had a number of people out there to take questions.

It’s the Chevy Volt:

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Impressions?

The body styling makes it look beefier than it really is. It’s a comfortably mid-sized car. It’s nice and roomy inside. It feels well put together. It doesn’t look like a hatchback, but surprisingly, it is (I love the usability of hatchbacks). I was really impressed with it.

But GM has a long way to go, even at the auto show, at least half the crowd was confused as to whether it was an all electric vehicle, or a a hybrid (well, it’s sort of neither). But once the basics were explained (you get 30-40 miles of electric only, then a gas engine turns on to charge the batteries, and you get all the range your gas can give you, but your mileage drops to 50-60MPG) people were more interested and understanding of what exactly it was. After some education, there were a number of converts in the crowd I was in who were just stunned that such a concept was in front of them, and buyable! I was quite amused. Alternative vehicles have been sold to the mainstream as failures, but a lot of people were coming around at the show.

While I was there I chatted with an enthusiastic line worker from GM (we make these motherfuckers! They’re incredible! You can use a battery and NO gas for most of your driving up around town, but if you gotta go visit your family and shit, then pow, you’ve got the gas if you need it).

The $40,000 price tag (33 after tax credit) still makes it seem a bit high for me, but with all the buzz, hopefully early adopters and a general need for a vehicle like this brings the price down.

I was initially skeptical of a ‘range extended’ vehicle, more in love with battery only, but the more I consider the real world uses of cars, particularly in the US, the more I think the Volt’s image of how to transition us into fuel efficiency is a very compelling way.

As this chart from a story about how the Volt came to be points out, it’s really a very elegant solution and I think the better one:

Fortunately, what’s awesome is that there are three different paths being heavily tested now: battery-only vehicles, hybrid plugins, and range extended battery vehicles. In the next couple years, we’re going to start seeing how these cars do in the real world.

And that, I think, is going to be the interesting thing to watch. And because we haven’t gone all in on one way, whichever one survives, we win.

For a science fiction writer, this was a heavy dose of future-on-the-horizon sort of stuff. I loved it.