Green Machines at the Shows

January 17, 2000

For yet another year, "green" was in at the Los Angeles and Detroit Auto Shows. Environmentally friendly automobiles dotted the show floor and many manufacturers were promoting their green efforts at press conferences.

Both Ford and General Motors showed off hybrid-electric concepts at the Detroit Auto Show. While both renewed their commitments to providing green machines in the next few years, both were quick to say it was unlikely that GM's Precept and Ford's Prodigy vehicles would ever be mass-produced due to their high costs. Both vehicles use a combination of electric power in conjunction with a diesel engine. Automakers may find that this arrangement may still have difficulty meeting future emissions requirements. In fact, neither vehicle will meet the standards unveiled by President Clinton last November, because of increased nitrogen oxides in the exhaust — a byproduct of more efficient diesel engines, according to engineers. In fact, GM Vice Chairman Harry Pearce said that nitrogen oxide standards would need to be relaxed in order to get "the true environmental benefits with lower emissions."

GM’s Precept uses side-view cameras and a three-cylinder diesel to achieve 80 mpg.

GM's Precept, a family sedan that gets 80 mpg, represents a significant departure from today's family sedans. The slippery-looking vehicle has no door handles, sideview cameras instead of mirrors, and air openings behind the rear wheels instead of a front grille. A rear-mounted three-cylinder diesel engine provides power to the rear, while an electric traction system moves the front wheels.

2000 Ford Prodigy concept

2000 Ford Prodigy concept

The Ford Prodigy automatically shuts itself down at idle to keep fuel economy hovering around the 70-mpg mark.

The Prodigy, a hybrid electric family sedan, puts Ford one step closer to reaching their goal of producing a similar affordable vehicle by 2003. The Prodigy engine, about 35 percent more efficient than a gasoline engine, actually shuts off at idle to conserve power. It restarts in the blink of an eye — about 0.2 seconds — when the driver steps on the accelerator. The vehicle represents significant improvements over its prior generation, the P2000, including a 33-percent improvement in aerodynamics, helping to improve fuel economy by an additional four mpg.

During the Honda press conference at the Los Angeles Auto Show, Sierra Club executive director Carl Pope awarded the gasoline-electric hybrid, the Honda Insight, the Sierra Club Award for Excellence in Environmental Engineering. The first-ever product award in the organization's 108-year history meant breaking a Sierra Club policy not to endorse products. "We want people to know there are environmentally sound alternatives readily available. In this case, Honda built a great car and has committed to marketing the Insight in all 50 states," said Pope.

Detroit gets some Insight

While in Detroit, Honda's chief executive and president Hiroyuki Yoshino said that Honda was aiming to become the first automaker to bring a commercial fuel-cell vehicle to market in 2003, a year ahead of Ford and DaimlerChrysler's announced plans. Ballard Power Systems also showed its newest fuel cell to journalists in Detroit. The new cell, which is currently being tested by automakers, is 70 percent lighter, 50 percent more powerful and half the size of current models.

General Motor's vice chairman Harry Pearce told TCC during the Detroit show that fuel cells are moving "much more quickly" through development in its joint project with Toyota. He further indicated that GM is focusing on solid-storage systems for fuel cells (versus reformers other companies, including Ford, are using) and that GM may partner with Toyota to produce hybrid vehicles in the near future. The speedy development process was one of the reasons given for GM's decision to stop production of the electric EV1. Pearce said that there is enough inventory to satisfy the minimal demand for the vehicle.

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