Automakers Show Off Gas-Electric Hybrids

.. pin long-term hopes on fuel cells

Published: 18-Jan-2004

DETROIT - Long the domain of concepts and smaller cars, gasoline-electric hybrids soon will power trucks and sport utility vehicles as automakers work to expand the more environmentally friendly technology.

The major auto manufacturers are ramping up the introduction of hybrids this year. At the North American International Auto Show, several touted those and other green innovations, such as efforts to tweak traditional engines to improve fuel economy and attempts to persuade Americans to give diesels another chance.

But environmentalists complain hybrids have been slower to reach production than once predicted. And they fear the industrywide push toward developing vehicles powered by hydrogen fuel cells, while offering potential long-term benefits, will overshadow improvements that can be made now.

"The fuel cell one day will dethrone the internal combustion engine," said Roland Hwang, a vehicle technology expert at the Natural Resources Defense Council. "In the meantime, there will be a lot of gasoline vehicles bought and sold in this country. ... We need to start cleaning up those vehicles."

Past auto shows have featured varying promises and predictions about greener vehicles. In 1998, for example, some automakers forecast that they would be ready to produce hybrids by 2001 and fuel cell vehicles by 2004. Now, hybrids are just making headway and widespread availability for fuel cell vehicles is probably a decade from now.

"There clearly is a desire to improve fuel economy," said Mike Wall, an analyst for the forecasting firm CSM Worldwide. "The trick is consumers still want the high horsepower vehicles, the large vehicles."

Trucks and SUVs that deliver higher horsepower typically consume more gas than cars. The average fuel economy for all 2003 model vehicles on the road was 20.8 mpg, down 6 percent from the peak year of 1988, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

"Overall, they're not doing a good job," said Brendan Bell, an expert with the Sierra Club's global warming and energy program. "They're creating a few vehicles. But at the same time under current fuel efficiency standards, when they build an efficient vehicle they can build another gas guzzler. That is really taking us backward."

At the auto show, which runs through Jan. 19, displays from Toyota Motor Corp., Honda Motor Co. and DaimlerChrysler AG and others highlight efforts to develop environmentally friendly vehicles. Honda announced plans for a hybrid version of its mid-sized Accord and its exhibit shows off its efforts to develop fuel cells.

Toyota's Prius, the world's first commercially mass-produced hybrid, was honored as the 2004 North American Car of the Year. DaimlerChrysler this year introduces its Jeep Liberty and Mercedes-Benz E-Class with fuel-efficient diesels.

Other hybrid offerings include a version of Chrysler Group's Dodge Ram pickup and No. 1 automaker General Motors Corp.'s Chevy Silverado and GMC Sierra trucks. No. 2 Ford Motor Co.'s Escape SUV will be sold as a hybrid in 2004, although its launch was pushed back from the end of last year for more testing.

While companies like Honda and Toyota are more aggressively bringing hybrids to market, GM decided last year to focus its most advanced hybrid technology on its largest, least-fuel-efficient, high-volume vehicles models. It plans for them to reach showrooms in 2007.

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