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Detroit 2013: It's Not Always Easy Being Green

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DETROIT—I take an annual pilgrimage to the North American International Auto Show (NAIAS), usually freezing my butt off in the—distinctly seasonable—Motor City January. Inside, there’s a warm glow from the millions of watts of illumination designed to make the new models look as bright as possible. I’m not totally feeling the love this year, though.

In the last few years, the trajectory for green vehicles at the Detroit Show has been straight up. In 2011 and 2010, I went from one electric and plug-in hybrid introduction to another. This year was very different, with only the Cadillac ELR—a very sleek luxury version of the Volt—in the new model column.

The Cadillac ELR is very snazzy, and being promoted more for luxury than for green. (Jim Motavalli photo)Over at Nissan, they rolled out the Resonance Concept, a crossover SUV that the company’s Dr. Andy Palmer said was “indicative of our future design.” It was a concept car, so there might have been nothing under the hood, but it’s supposed to have a one-motor, two-clutch hybrid system.

Nissan had earlier indicated that it was going to show off a new, cheaper and de-contented version of the Leaf electric car in Detroit. It did, but the car—which should be available for $28,800, or around $21,000 after the federal income credit—was in a corner and unmentioned from the stage.

The new, more affordable Nissan Leaf didn't merit a stage introduction. (Jim Motavalli photo)Still, there was a lot for me to see, and write about. It was amusing that some of the most gas-guzzling introductions—the Corvette Stingray, the Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT—came with eco features. There’s no escaping it. BMW’s i3 and i8 electrics were on hand, and getting much closer to production. I’d first seen the i8 plug-in hybrid convertible concept in New York, but it was also here in Detroit. Adrian van Hooydonk, BMW’s chief designer, told me that the car’s ultra-tough carbon fiber inner construction makes it easy to change body styles. In other words, you can cut the roof off without having to change the chassis.

The Smart stand was fun. The company showed off the new Smart Electric Drive (which will cost something like $18,000, including the federal rebate, when it appears this spring).
Also turning on a turntable was the new forstars concept, showcasing a fresh design language for Smart. Here's the car on video:



Johnson Controls showed off a 48-volt battery and said that all cars are likely to end up with higher voltage to accommodate all the fancy infotainment systems—and also the start-stop systems that can shut vehicles down at stoplights and save quite a bit of fuel.

The forstars is a bright new look for Smart's cars--seen here in electric mode. (Jim Motavalli photo)I stopped by the tiny Current Motor stand. It’s a Michigan company that makes electric scooters capable of 65 mph and 50 miles on a charge. Current, explained executive chairwoman Lauren Flanagan, has an alliance with Dell that allows cloud storage of data (miles traveled, speed, load and more) produced by the Super Scooter. The 3G connection also enables charging sessions optimized for time-of-use rates.
Current Motor’ scooters are “on sale and shipping,” Flanagan said. “Our two-wheeled electrics are ideal for emerging markets. Range anxiety is real, but nobody gets on a scooter to cross the country.” Scooters like this, for commuters, are eligible for a 10 percent tax credit.

I also went by Via Motors, which is a fixture in Detroit. The company aims to convert big (and I do mean big) General Motors utility vehicles for fleet use, and at the auto show this year it brought along two actual customers, Verizon and PG&E. Even though the plug-in hybrid trucks are expensive (around $80,000), PG&E told me the payback period is reasonable, and a big plus is power out—the trucks can have 120- and 240-volt outlets for site power.

This plug-in hybrid Verizon truck is from Via Motors. (Jim Motavalli photo)An irony is that one of the company’s advisors, the larger-than-life Bob Lutz (a former GM vice chairman and star of Revenge of the Electric Car) was in Detroit both extolling the virtues of Via (he praised the thorough engineering, which makes the trucks more than just another conversion) and selling his Corvette-engined Fiskers.

Yes, the VL Destino (“L” for Lutz, “V” for Gilbert Villareal, who’s helping bankroll the operation, is a plug-in hybrid converted to a fire-breathing V-8. It’s like a Tesla Model S with Ferrari power. Given Fisker’s fiscal woes and current lack of production, it’s not surprising that spare bodies (known as “gliders”) were available, but there’s a lot of irony here. Lutz is converting gas cars to plug-in hybrids with Via, and plug-in hybrids to gas at VL. Such are the odd times in which we find ourselves. 
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