Detroit Show Overview: We’re On The Road to Somewhere, But Not There Yet

It’s long been an adage that if you “build a better mousetrap, the world will beat a path to your doorstep,” but what if you do not have the end-all, be-all mousetrap?

Or, in the case of the automotive industry, what if you don’t have the end-all, be-all powertrain technology yielding superlative fuel economy, but with sufficient performance, and at a price everyone will clamor for?

With an eye toward ultimately weaning away from petroleum altogether, the common theme at this week’s Detroit Auto Show is all manufacturers are making some kind of nod to fuel economy in every product featured. Also in plain view is it’s a time of mixed messages, unclear direction, competing views and more.

At this stage, automakers’ products in essence represent hedged bets and run the gamut.

You have all-electric, plug-in hybrid, full hybrid, mild hybrid, micro hybrid; technologies like stop/start, direct injection, cylinder deactivation, CVT transmissions, dual-clutch transmissions, “regular” automatics with eight- and nine-speeds and so on. You have “clean diesels” either present or said to be on their way like the pending Chevy Cruze diesel, and even natural gas vehicles are present or pending as well. Also, highlighted are plenty of advanced materials that lighten the car including more use of aluminum alloys, magnesium, high-strength steel, and carbon fiber.

VW CrossBlue Concept.

VW CrossBlue Concept.

But who has the “best” solution? Are EVs the future? Are hybrids? What about the controversial dark horse – fuel cell vehicles – mildly represented, but implicitly waiting in the wings? What technology makes the most sense toward weaning away from oil and moving us down the road to zero emissions?

Where are we going with all these “solutions?” That has yet to be proven over the coming years but you have a variety of philosophical perspectives leading to different marketing approaches.

Some makers – like Toyota continue to emphasize the value of its hybrid technology, whereas others like Volkswagen are sprinkling a little of everything into its pending and current product mix.

According to analyst Alan Baum, principal of Baum & Associates, VW is reminiscent of how Toyota was a few years ago as it had a technological head start with hybrids and opportunities to broaden its offerings.

“The success of VW and its cash hoard allows it to do what Toyota did earlier and broadly expand its fuel economy offerings and determine what best meets its goals,” Baum says.

Toyota has made great strides, but has actually backed away from full electrified offerings – for now – while VW has positioned itself to be ready with whatever technology pans out.

2014 Cadillac ELR.

2014 Cadillac ELR.

Baum observes that VW has said it will be number one worldwide within half a decade or so. To help in this plan for global domination, it has such innovations as its broadly expansive MQB platform. This is an incredibly versatile platform that can accept front, rear- or all-wheel-drive, in car or crossover form, and with any powertrain it wishes to bolt up.

With it, and by committing to all technologies, the German automaker is showing it is ready for wherever the future winds may blow, not unlike the approach Ford is taking with respect to fuel economy.

Taking a more focused (and conservative) tack is General Motors – the latter of which on the same week unveiled its new racetrack-ready, carbon-fiber laden C7 Corvette to the applause of enthusiasts everywhere, and its Volt-based plug-in Cadillac ELR. Even the Chevy Silverado is being lauded for better fuel economy, although its approach is more measured than that taken with the current Ford F150 and the Atlas concept, which will debut in production form late next year.

Tesla Model X.

Tesla Model X.

Tesla Motors, as most followers of these cars know, is all about the coming electric car revolution, and so it goes. For Tesla, it is sink or swim, and its boldness has won it many fans, but it is a brave gambit it is playing.

The Future

This state of affairs should be no surprise as the industry tries to position itself for predicted rising fuel prices plus federal and European efficiency mandates calling for lower emissions and higher mpg.

It is anything but a case of extreme austerity measures however.

Is what we have in American culture now like a case of dragging a kid kicking and screaming to a scrubbing? Maybe. But who’s the “kid?” Is it some of the automakers that fought or at least strenuously negotiated with CAFE regulators, environmentalists and advocates? Or is it a Western civilization that is “addicted to oil” and cannot give up pleasures it has become accustomed to, and implicitly expects to keep increasing?

In the face of these times of technological feasting are grim threats resulting from global warming, fuel scarcity, or at least uncertain fuel prices and fluctuations tempering the party.

VIA Xtruck Plug-in Series Hybrid.

VIA Xtruck Plug-in Series Hybrid.

Some wholeheartedly embrace the dire message like it’s the new religion, showing themselves ready to do their part, whatever that may be to them, while others give nodding assent or ignore or deny what many others say is an unsustainable state of affairs.

It’s been said Americans in particular are crisis managers but the need to scrub up is becoming more and more apparent, so we are seeing more and more clean cars and trucks.

Even the heaviest, largest, fastest vehicles – the ones that burn the most fuel and emit the most hydrocarbons – are making an attempt to look clean and tidy in a relative sense. And even modest increases in mpg in these vehicles add up to big percentage gains.

Economics

We’ve had recessions to contend with adding economic fears to the warnings on the environmental front, but actually the U.S. car market has seen 10-percent annual growth for the last four years.

We’ve long loved our cars in these here United States, old habits die hard, but according to Baum, the growth rate in 2013 will not be quite as strong.

Last year the U.S. purchased about 14.4 million vehicles in all. This year, Baum says he could see 15.1 million being purchased.

As the fortunes of the general industry have increased, so have the proliferation and percentages enjoyed by the alternative segment, which as of yet still represents a relatively small sliver. But they are increasing, and the alternative segments are increasing faster than the general market.

Toyota FCV-R Hydrogen Fuel Cell Vehicle Concept.

Toyota FCV-R Hydrogen Fuel Cell Vehicle Concept.

This is easily explained in that it’s easier to have a larger percentage uptick over a smaller number than a larger one. Hybrids represent just three percent of the market so they are growing at a faster clip than the general market. Even more true is this characteristic for EVs, which started from nothing just a few years ago, and now are somewhere around 0.6 percent of the general auto market.

While some wonder if they’ll flop, it could just as well be a case of they have nowhere to go but up and we see no reason why they won’t at this point either.

For that matter, neither does GM President Mark Reuss, who this week at the Automotive News World Congress gave a rousing support message that EVs will have their day, and the tide is turning, if not also against resistance and slower than advocates hoped for.

We’ve posted briefs on several of the alternative tech models and concepts on display this week, and shown here are photos of green models highlighted at this week’s show.

BMW i8 Plug-in Hybrid Sports Car.

BMW i8 Plug-in Hybrid Sports Car.

A number of the gee-whiz vehicles, by the way, happen to be catering to upper middle class buyers. Many car buyers of the middle and lower socioeconomic levels have held onto their cars or are buying clean used cars.

Many of the models on display are there for the new car buyer with enough income and who is informed enough to discern what he or she is willing to pay up for.

Within the mix of what the savvy new car buyer is gravitating to will be some measure of fuel economy because that is the New Priority in today’s automotive landscape. But people still want to feel good in what they have. So, plenty of infotainment, creature comforts, performance and style are also there to pick from.

Summary

In short, no one knows the ideal road to take – not consumers, not automakers, but we’re feeling our way along and making progress, or so it would seem.

If it is fast enough, or not, is anyone’s guess. What technology will prevail is also unclear.

A move away from petroleum consumption is happening. It may be too slow in the view of some, but it is happening.