2008: Auto Show Green Attack

This year, the theme in the auto industry will be greener. And it can be reflected on the upcoming autoshows. True, the industry has its way of popping up surprises.
Apparently, automakers are absorbed in the development of lithium-ion batteries to bolster their green credo. Saturn said it hopes to sell a Vue plug-in with a 10-mile electric-only range by 2010. Toyota, meanwhile, said it will have a few hundred plug-ins in commercial test fleets by then. Others are following the green trails of the auto giants.

AFS Trinity Power Corp. has equipped a 2007 Saturn Vue with a prototype plug-in system it says can go 40 miles on lithium-ion batteries before a 4-cylinder engine kicks in for gas/electric operation. Estimated cost is $8,700 for the Extreme Hybrid system, reported the Daily Press.

What’s the difference of AFS’s system with those of others? “We’re doing it with batteries available now. We’re not waiting for the technology to develop,” said Chief Technology Officer Donald Bender.

“My next dream is that one of the (automakers) will say they want to put this system on their car,” AFS Chairman and Chief Executive Edward Furia said. “We could give them exclusive use for two years, and then we could license it to others. Consumers could recover the $8,700 cost in fuel savings in three and a half years with gas at $2.85, and in less time at higher prices.”

David Champion, Consumer Reports magazine’s automotive testing director, is dubious of the hype around battery technology. “A breakthrough in battery technology has been two years away for 20 years.”

“Cost is a big part of our research,” said Jaycie Chitwood, a senior planner with Toyota’s advanced technologies group. “We want to find out how much (electric-only) range people want and how much they want to pay for it. The batteries aren’t free.”

Expense is what is also keeping the plug-in hybrids on the sidelines, notwithstanding diesel’s 25-30% fuel economy advantage over petrol.

GM Vice Chairman Bob Lutz points out that hybrid systems add thousands to a vehicle’s cost, as do diesel engines, particularly now that the latter have to meet the same emissions requirements as their gas counterparts. “You can get sensational fuel economy, but you’re doubling the cost of the powertrain,” he noted. “When that happens, people will start saying that gasoline isn’t that expensive.”

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