The U.S. auto industry was on the brink of collapse last year. While new car sales have been up in recent months, automakers are still faced with challenges from the global recession. The Washington, D.C. Auto Show, with 700 makes and models from 42 domestic and foreign manufacturers, showcases a new strategy the auto industry hopes will help it meet that challenge: new and more environmentally-friendly "green" technologies.
Ford Motor Company president and CEO Alan Mulally officially opened the 2010 Washington Auto Show with a folksy pitch. "I'm Alan. I'm from Ford, and I'm ready to take care of your car needs."
The Ford CEO, whose company just reported its first profitable year since 2005, went on to detail a $400 million investment program to build its next-generation Explorer at facilities in Chicago. The new mid-sized Sports Utility Vehicle, a best seller for Ford, would raise fuel efficiency 25 percent over the current model. Mulally says the move has been a top priority for the company. "Because of our size and our scale, when we make that kind of fuel efficiency, and we put [it] across the entire product line, we make a significant step forward in fuel mileage and CO2 reduction."
Ford expects hybrids and electric vehicles to make up 20 percent of its fleet by 2020, up from 3 percent today. These alternative-energy automobiles are sparking the interest of potential new-car buyer Cynthia Smith of Potomac, Maryland.
She is weighing her options along the Advanced Technologies Super Highway, a stretch of the auto show dedicated to electric and hybrid vehicles as well as those powered by hydrogen or ethanol or clean diesel. Smith says she's ready to jump into the market. "I would like to support some sort of alternative energy option. I'm tired of the standard everyday car that just keeps going up in gas and gets, in my opinion, unrealistically poor, unnecessarily poor gas mileage."
Smith eyes a silver Chevy Volt, GM's soon-to-be released electric car that will run 64 kilometers before a gasoline-powered generator kicks in to hold the charge until the vehicle can be plugged in again. But she's not convinced it's her best choice. "If I am going to take a long trip, I would just plain not buy a car where I was 100 percent limited to an infrastructure that isn't there yet," she says. "I am not ready to make that kind of a leap."
Neither is Jeremy Stanley of Fort Washington, Maryland. He owns the best-selling Ford Explorer and is in the market for a second smaller, more fuel-efficient Ford. But he also wouldn't hesitate buying another Explorer SUV, even though its fuel economy can't match that of a hybrid or electric car. "I've never had any problems. It's never broken down on me," says Stanley. "It's four-wheel drive. I like to fish. It takes my equipment and meets my needs. It's a good car on the road."
Ron Cogan, editor and publisher of the Green Car Journal, says that while the magazine gave its 2010 Green Car Vision of the Year Award to the Nissan Leaf, a zero emissions all-electric car that will hit U.S. markets next year, he would caution buyers to keep their options open as automakers transition to greener model lines.
"As much as I am a believer in electric drive and battery electric cars, that's not the exclusive technology," says Cogan. "To ignore clean diesel when we can make such an important change in how much fuel we use right now, that would be at our peril." He adds that new advances in internal combustion vehicle, that get 20-to-30 percent better fuel efficiency, are in the pipeline.
The 240 million cars on U.S. roads create 20 percent of the nation's climate changing emissions, according to Ann Mesnikoff, who came to the Washington Auto Show to see the new models. Mesnikoff heads the Green Transportation Campaign for the Sierra Club, the nation's largest environmental group. Although hybrids and electric vehicles still make up just 3 percent of the U.S. car market, she is encouraged to see that automakers seem interested in growing that share, and are thinking more seriously about cleaner, more energy-efficient vehicles.
"But beyond having an electric car, we need to see what the industry can do with their trucks. We need to see a lot of change in those gas guzzling vehicles."
Mesnikoff notes that the U.S. government is raising the minimum fuel efficiency requirements for all gasoline-powered cars across the industry, a move aimed at reducing gasoline combustion and climate changing carbon emissions. But the new standards won't go into force until 2016. Until then, says Mesnikoff, environmentalists will need to keep the pressure on automakers to keep improving engine technologies to further reduce polluting emissions.