I just returned from three grueling days with thousands of journalists at the kickoff of the 2007 North American Auto Show in Detroit. During the media days, the world’s top broadcast and print publications, with rare exception, become a de facto public relations agency for the auto industry, giving primetime coverage and front-page headlines to anything fed to them from the car companies’ news releases. I overhead one journalist say, "I know it’s just a puff piece, but it’s fun."

Media center

Media center of the 2007 Detroit Auto Show

For car buyers who think about their vehicle’s environmental and energy impact, it’s easy to get lost in the media blitz. Beyond the hype, does the Detroit Auto Show reveal anything about the industry’s response to the emerging climate change crisis, or the new realities of petroleum dependence? If anybody can read those green tea leaves, it’s Dr. John DeCicco of Environmental Defense. As an automotive engineer, he has spent his entire career analyzing hard environmental data. I walked the show floor with Dr. D, who sees a lot of hope at the 2007 show—but not in a ways that you might expect.

Hybrids? Nope. From DeCicco’s perspective, all except Toyota’s hybrids are still "fringe" offerings. Fuel cells? Speculative. "It’s wonderful that Honda has built a fuel cell car and put it in a few customer’s hands. But the number of barriers there are pretty incredible." Cars that can run on ethanol? "Ethanol has the promise of being green, but right now Detroit is using it as greenwash." (See E85 Puzzle: Double the Credit for Half the Work.) Diesel? According to the gospel of John, diesel is far more real than fuel cells, but until the emissions issues are resolved, it’s not a significant player.

DeCicco is a pragmatist. In his opinion, the most interesting segments are the so-called SUV-crossovers—smaller, more wagon-like SUVs—and the resurgent small car segment. He looks at mainstream designs that make up the vast majority of the market, and is optimistic. "I see a rebalancing of products that are right-sized, rather than, shall we say, super-sized," he explains.

SIGNS OF HOPE

Hyundai Veracruz

Hyundai Veracruz

The new Hyundai Veracruz crossover: "This is the sort of vehicle that’s going to be appealing to buyers now who were buying Ford Explorers 10 years ago."

Honda Ridgeline Pickup: "This is a balancing trend relative to full-sized pickups, which are really family haulers for people who want the image of a truck, or vehicles for some single people who want a pickup instead of a sports car. The shows the ability to create appealing product that fits, but is not a Ford Super Duty or a huge Toyota Tundra."

Ford Airstream Concept

Ford Airstream Concept

Ford Airstream Concept: "Something like this has already been implemented in vehicles like the Honda Element or the boxy Scion xB on a smaller scale. A right-size appealing concept like this is an example of putting the creative energy and customer appeal into a product that doesn’t do any harm. As an Airstream, if it was executed with an aluminum unibody, lighter with the right safety features, very aerodynamic, this could be a much more efficient product for the amount of usable space than your typical SUV, or even today’s minivans."

Ford F-350 Super Duty: "In Ford’s unveiling of the newSuper Duty at the auto show, Ford executive Mark Fields talked about the concept’s 12,000 pound towing capacity. He said, ‘we are running out of things to tow with it.’ To me, that is what is we have to get away from." He adds with a smile, "I don’t say the whole show is hopeful."

ELECTRIC VISIONS AND REALITIES

I start to get antsy after all this talk about slightly smaller pickup trucks and SUVs. I pull DeCicco over to the Chevy Volt, a plug-in series hybrid concept vehicle that is receiving a lot of publicity. GM claims the Volt is a "game-changer" and will be ready for the road in just a couple of years. Isn’t that the kind of quantum leap forward we need?

DeCicco replies that people have been talking about the need for a quantum shift for a long time. He offers an analogy:

"We have our boots on, and they’re caked with manure. Oil dependence, CO2, all this pollution, horrible situation. How are we going to get out of it? Look. Yonder. Blue skies. Nice pristine environment over there in the distance. That’s where we have to go. And then, what are we doing? Taking another step in it. Don’t talk to me about the need to go up to the pristine lake at the top of the mountain, when we’re not paying attention to where we’re putting our feet from one day to the next, from one year to the next. Because there’s no way to get there by stomping in more manure."

DeCicco draws a line between the public’s very real hunger for solutions, the pressure that it creates in the auto industry, and the desire for carmakers to respond with concept vehicles like the Chevy Volt. "It fits because there’s been so much effort put into the electric vehicle vision as the technology that will save us from ourselves."

"Start the clock at 1990 and look at the realities on the ground now. GM’s fuel economy is lower than it was in 1990, as is its market share. That is not a success story. That is neither environmental progress nor economic progress. I contrast that with the kind of rebalancing I see in a resurgence of crossovers and new small cars that are beginning to excite people. To me, that’s real product that doesn’t face questions like, oh, how do we store the hydrogen, or…dang my cell phone just ran out. Our lithium technology is not quite there yet."

WAKE UP AND SMELL THE REALITY

By this time, we’ve made a wide sweep across the expo floor, I’m famished and DeCicco is exhausted. He suggests a visit to BMW’s display, renowned for serving great food. I order a crepe and DeCicco grabs an espresso—it’s BMW, after all. As we sit down, we see Tom Purves, chairman and CEO for BMW of North America. I can’t resist asking about BMW’s view of the environmental and energy equation. Purves replies, "A BMW customer may not be desperately worried about paying his gasoline bill. But he would like to have bragging rights that his new 7 series doesn’t just go fast, it actually uses a bit less fuel." Mr. Purves provides a detailed explanation of BMW’s notion of "efficient dynamics," the painstaking R&D effort to simultaneously achieve better performance and better efficiency.

I ask, "What about leapfrogging the efficiency equation with new technology?" He responds, "Leapfrogging is one of those things that people talk about but hardly ever do. What you do is incrementally improve performance over time. Since 1990, our corporate fuel economy on a worldwide basis has improved by nearly 30 percent. This is all real stuff available to consumers effectively today, rather than something that’s perhaps 15 or 20 years in the future."

I look over at DeCicco. He gives me a knowing glance and swigs down his espresso.