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Detroit Navigates a Changing World

Photos and story by Robert J. Pennington
Edited by Clifford Guren

This year’s North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) provided more insight into how Detroit hopes to navigate the sharp curves of the rapidly evolving auto industry. The economic downturn and global climate change have created a perfect storm for the automotive industry. Government and consumers alike are calling for a significant change in direction. Detroit has finally embraced the electric vehicle (EV) as its flagship in its turnaround campaign. EVs have come to the forefront because of their ability to make a positive impact on critical issues like the environment and foreign energy dependence. In previous NAIAS shows EVs were sidebars or part of the general green-washing of the auto industry. In 2009 EV’s are the crown jewels of the show.

“All electric” vehicles can potentially deliver compelling advantages over traditional internal combustion engine powered cars. They can be smaller and lighter—and therefore more efficient. For the moment, designers don’t have the engineering in hand required to fully exploit these advantages, but they’re making headway… That’s why there’s such a focus on the performance and luxury segments—the healthy profit margins in these segments offset the costs of this still developing technology.

Mouse over photos above to view captions.

In contrast to the smaller, specialty manufacturers like Tesla and Fiskar, General Motors has focused on the challenge of delivering an all electric vehicle at an affordable price. GM’s solution is the Chevy Volt. The wheels in the Volt are always driven by an electric motor. The electric motor is powered by batteries for the first 40 miles, then by a small gas powered generator to deliver extended range. The Volt will go 200 miles between a plug-in or fill-up. The Volt will be in production in 2010 and have price of around $40,000. The Volt is a major benchmark in next generation of hybrids.

The question is, will consumers adapt as quickly as Detroit? The throaty racket or ear-piercing whine of a well-tuned internal combustion engine is destined to become a distant memory. Will we welcome the whirr of the electric engine or lament our command of all that power? Perhaps auto manufacturers should think about a security blanket—the sound of a big Detroit V8 or Porsche Flat 6 to play while we drive toward the future.

First published in Ecozome, February 23, 2009
See more images from the 2009 Detroit Auto Show