The 113th annual New York International Auto Show began letting media in Tuesday, March 26, opens to the public Friday, and runs to April 7. This year it is marked by a larger number of actual production-ready “green” and fuel-efficient cars, and plenty of larger SUVs and crossovers.
Fewer are the who-knows-if-they’ll-build-it bleeding-edge green vehicle concepts, but every automaker is making a continued and resounding nod toward the idea of cutting emissions and raising fuel economy.
Over 1,000 vehicles are on display at the 900,000 square-foot Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in Westside Manhattan, and observers have said things like “green” is now “mainstream,” and while that’s true in a qualified sense, we could put a finer point on it.
It’s a given that fuel-efficiency and zero-emissions mandates here and abroad are shaping every automaker’s plans and they all are at least make some semblance of snapping to in the new order of things.
Underlying the whole state of affairs are ecological concerns, the understanding that cheap, easy flowing oil production has peaked, and desire to save money at the pump – or eliminate the pump altogether.
Society is trying to take better care of itself, the environment, and climate, and the general push is to improve transportation for present and future generations.
But rather than say green is now mainstream, in some ways we’d contend it’s not actually – it’s not any more mainstream than, say, counting calories or a healthy diet is mainstream over fast food. Arguably it is, but then you have lots of exceptions as we also have an “obesity epidemic” in the face of more available information and choices on healthy living than ever before.
Similarly, there are some who “get it” about the green car movement in its various forms, and people to varying degrees have bought into the ethos. At the same time, there are many others who are giving high-performance cars and uber-luxury and off-road capable machines all the more of a last hurrah – if it really is their “last” hurrah” or a defiant holding on.
Threatened with the extinction of the excessive, lots of people are actually reaffirming their love for the outlandish, the audacious, the ostentatious and over-the top expressions of the now-mature automaker’s technology capable of producing dream machines.
There is a definite push-back in “mainstream” culture with what in some quarters is perceived as the threat of electric cars, penny pinching hybrids, and loosely related “clean” technologies that some fear may propose to take all the fun away from cars and trucks.
So, as sustainable and environmentally conscious choices continue to be introduced, there are those clinging all-the-more to faster, more powerful, more raucous and wasteful expressions of the carbuilder’s art.
As such, more vehicles today are available for the cost of a nice house in the suburbs, or with over 500 horsepower than have ever been, even as we also have more production electric cars, plug-in hybrids, hybrids, and “clean diesels” now and promised.
So you can pick your metaphor to describe the diverse state of the culture today.
Looking at it from a culinary angle, the tasty automotive fare on display in New York this week is like a trip to a gourmet restaurant with lots of fattening but delicious treats to be had.
At the same time, the green cars are like green healthy vegetables and other modest, lean portions for those who eat to live, and do not live to eat – or drive.
Tesla’s Model S is not on display this year, and it could be seen as a sort of exception to the myth that “green” means less fun. After all, even some car fans who know next to nothing about EVs may know Tesla’s electric car beat a Dodge Viper and BMW M5 in a drag race, and handles and brakes well too.
So any perceived threat of a lost fun factor is not entirely valid, but other green cars do trade fun for frugality, and the price for electrified fun is higher than many a high-performance gas car that can serve up a modicum of adrenaline for less.
So, at New York, we see plenty of rolling celebrations of the traditional, but at the same time – and in a way similar to how many people realize it might be better to go on a diet – people have thoughts about whether they too can or should go automotively green.
It is proposed as a better choice, after all, right? For those thinking like this, a question becomes where is the tipping point?
Short of early adopters who anticipated the advent of electrification, and embrace and even idolize electric or hybrid cars, those who follow are also catching on. They are considering what’s out there, whether they want to take the plunge, and how deep they want to go.
And, there is still a sizable number who know very little about “green” technologies. And among those who do know about hybrids, EVs and the like, there prevails a wide disparity of understanding – as well as held-onto myths, conjecture, sheer ignorance, and misconception.
A quick look at the sales numbers for alternative energy vehicles is more telling. The alternative vehicle market is still only 3-4 percent of the North American total. Does that define “mainstream?” Not in our book.
What we have today is kind of like what happened in the 60s and 70s when large numbers of people first started cuing in to the benefits of eating healthy, and public perceptions shifted one person at a time.
Today we still have fast food restaurants and junk food sales are a multi-billion dollar industry. For that matter, we also have millions of people who take recreational drugs, or smoke, or never exercise even though they’ve heard there may be better choices for their long-term well being.
As the expression goes, “pick your poison,” and perverse as it may sound, a lot of people do not do what is absolutely best for themselves, or most “rational” and “well informed,” and this includes their sense and sensibility toward cars and trucks.
The push to take “green cars” mainstream is working like a carrot-and-stick effort, and the horse is moving forward slowly but surely.
It is all happening, and fortunately, alternative energy manufacturers are building on the backs of previous innovators. They are merging into their new offerings as much fun, innovative design, and convenience as possible.
Electrified plug-in cars are being rolled out, but as we’ve seen with “compliance cars” meant to satisfy regulators, in some cases they are being made and sold by tentative automakers who feel a proverbial gun to their own head.
And, as marketers, they know there is resistance; the lower hanging fruit is selling cars their sales force can understand, the consumer thinks looks affordable and good enough. This may mean only a more economical car and not a hybrid or plug-in variety.
One could also argue the pain at the pump today is not great enough to make some automakers go crazy in proliferating their lineup with more choices.
A prime example is GM, which rushed the Chevrolet Volt to market, then introduced a more expensive Cadillac version that does not perform much different, and no other down market variants as of yet. Its only all-electric car is the pending Spark EV, and it is otherwise proliferating mild hybrids while it aims primarily for its bread-and-butter buyers, while also serving up new variants to the 500-horsepower club, like the newly revived, and introduced just-yesterday Z/28 Camaro, a turnkey trackday car.
This is not to pick on GM, as every automaker is constrained to make a buck, and not stick its neck out too far into what is still an emerging market and technology needing to evolve.
It and other automakers are making plenty of positive noises also about what they are doing behind the scenes, and take pains to show they know their future products must be efficient and clean.
This is true of the Europeans, Koreans, Americans and Japanese to one degree or the other.
There is a technological race on, even if we are not sure who is really competing to win, or if they have entries in entirely different arenas as well.
The New York International Auto Show is a latest touchstone of the continuing process. It might even be a good thing that actual production cars are being shown, with improved mpg across the board, instead of cars that only tease, but will never be built.
Or alternatively, maybe it shows the inspiration to introduce new gee-whiz creations has momentarily lulled as now we are in this long-haul drive toward sustainability.
In any case, it is business as usual this week in New York; and motives and intentions in the push-pull interaction of the budding green car market are as diverse and cosmopolitan as the city itself.