NAIAS 2011: EVs Admired and Missed

By Bill Moore

Posted: 12 Jan 2011

No, we're not quite at the "can't throw a dead cat without hitting" an EV stage yet, but we're getting darn close to it at the 2011 Detroit auto show.

After a harrowing cab ride that took ninety minutes to cover the 25 miles from Cobo Hall to Detroit's Metro airport during an evening rush hour snow storm -- a journey that shouldn't take more than a third that time -- I am now back home and have more or less caught up with emails and news posting to EV World. I've gone over the couple hundred photos I took during the show and chided myself for the EVs I missed, of which there were several, including Mercedes canary yellow AMG SLS E-Cell, which I walked past several times without realizing it was electric.

But if you've ever been to the North American International Auto Show, which is the annual event's official name, you'll understand how overwhelming it all can be for just one person. New cars and light trucks of every shape, color and size cover acres of ground; and most of them are petrol-powered. But more and more, here and there, some them have at least a hint of e-drive in them and a fair number of them are entirely electric-powered.

As a guest of Venturi Automobiles, the advanced EV-developer based in Monaco, I naturally spent a fair amount of time with them, both in the exhibit area and in their private conference room interviewing and eavesdropping. I got to know their founder, Gildo Pallanca Pastor, a little better, as well as his top designer and director of engineering, along with other team members, including the CEO of his new Venturi North America division, John Pohill, and the two young ladies who grace the image link to this page. I also met Roger Schoer, who drove the Jamais Contente electric streamliner over 300 mph last summer at Bonneville Salt Flats, and Xavier Chevrin who drove Venturi-powered Citroen Berlingo from Shanghai to Paris, all on electric power and without escort or support. So, naturally, much of my perspective and coverage of the show is colored by that relationship. I had, basically, just 24 hours to walk through show, take photos, interview key people at Venturi, eat and sleep. To do Detroit justice from an EV-only perspective now will take more time and more people, but then with hundreds of journalists covering the show, a lot of the leg work can be left to them, with links to their respective write-ups.

Personally, I had several key dialogues that stand out, apart, of course from my conversations with the Venturi people. Moments after walking into the show late Monday afternoon, I ran into Roger Riedener, the CEO and head of sales for Perves AG, the Swiss maker of the E-Tracer electric cycle "car," one of three winners of the Progressive Insurance X Prize this past year. I finally got to see all three X Prize winners, which were at the show, but time constraints only allowed me to talk with Roger.

The next conversation I had was with Jon Lauckner and Tony Posawatz, both with GM. Jon now heads up GM Ventures, LLC, the newly-formed venture capital arm of General Motors. Tony is a key executive in the Volt program. I count both as friends whom I greatly admire for pulling off one of the great engineering feats of the last decade, one that earned them Car of the Year award this week. I'll share some of what I learned from them as we sat around a small bar table in the Volt section of the GM exhibit in a separate posting.

In terms of the EVs that stood out most in my mind, I have to put the new Prius c Concept car pretty near the top. It really is one sharp little car. On reflection it reminds me of what you might get if you could breed a Prius with a BMW Mini. It has the appeal of both cars, especially the Mini's assertive nimbleness. Of course, I have no idea how it drives, but we're likely to know that by sometime next year when the car actually goes into production, according to a Toyota representative.

In addition to the new Prius v model that goes into production yet this year -- and I think its going to be a winner for Toyota -- the I was surprised by the number of Lexus hybrids on display, including the brand new CT 200h. Lexus now has six hybrids in its product line-up. Toyota also had the RAV4 EV on display, its windshield bearing the label "Powered By Tesla."

Next on the list of top electric-drive cars are those from Ford, including its first electric hybrid (PHEV) based on the new C-Max platform. Dubbed the Energi, the five-passenger hatchback, will utilize lithium-ion batteries and have an overall driving range target of 500 miles (800 km), though how much of it will be in EV-mode and what their strategy is, whether fully-electric or blended, isn't being discussed just yet, at least not in their published literature.

Perhaps the third most memorable of the EVs I discovered was Volvo's C30. I had the chance to interview two key Volvo executives about the car, some 200 or so that will be built later this year for demonstration programs in Europe and the US. What stands out about it is how it looks when it's wrecked. The Swedish company, which is known for its obsession with vehicle safety, deliberately crashed one of their prototypes equipped with EnerDel batteries to see what would happen to them. They brought that car to the show and put a mirror under it to reveal how the crash impacted the batteries. In a word: nothing. The battery back survived in tack, even if the car was totaled.

EVs I came across, but didn't have time to track down company reps and kibitz about their car, included BYD, which brought a new crossover/SUV electric hybrid called the S6DM (dual motor), as well as the F3DM and E6, both of which are slated for U.S. introduction now in the 2012 time frame. Of course, Telsa was on hand with both the Roadster, and the Model S in white body.

Volkswagen had its new Blue e-Motion electric Golf on display, and Honda brought the Fit EV as well. I completely missed the Audi hybrid, as well as by-passing BMW and Porsche's displays. I was hoping to finally get a look at Nissan's LEAF, but they didn't come to the show; neither did Mitsubishi, which is a shame. I understand that Nissan will be in Detroit next year.

My overall impression of the show is that while IC engines fueled by petroleum still clearly dominate, there is serious movement now towards greater electrification. GM announced this week, it will be offering a vehicle that sounds somewhat akin to Toyota's Venza or Ford's new Vertrek using the Volt drive system. They also plan to equip the Cadillac SRX with it, as well.

In fact, Deutsche Bank recently estimated that by 2012 there will be some 130 electric-drive vehicle programs in the "global pipeline," at which point I am probably going to have to hire help for NAIAS 2013, assuming the world doesn't come to an end a few weeks earlier at the winter solstice.

Just kidding.... I hope!

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