February, 8th 2010

Think the auto industry isn’t changing? Think again...

– Liz Mair

Over the last two years, between auto bailouts and the usual angst emanating from hardcore environmentalists* about SUVs and the like, the auto industry has been under fire for being outmoded, falling behind, and failing to aggressively pursue new technologies—especially green ones—to the extent that some other industries purportedly do.

A recent visit to Washington’s Auto Show, however, further underlines how this kind of thinking is increasingly fueled by fiction, not fact, and fails to give the industry its dues for some fairly amazing advancements, especially in the realm of green tech, of late. 

Everyone knows about the Prius and various other types of Hybrid.  After last night’s Superbowl coverage, many will be aware of Audi’s Clean Diesel (Volkswagen’s TDI fleet having already garnered a lot of attention since its earlier roll-out).  And we hear a lot about the 2011 Chevy Volt.

But in the next year or so, Nissan is expecting to roll out the LEAF—an electric car that takes green to all-new levels.

I spoke to a Nissan representative about the LEAF at this year’s Auto Show and some of the features he highlighted are really quite noteworthy: Setting aside the car’s ability to reach up to 90 miles per hour (not an astounding speed, but pretty good for something that isn’t quite built like a Porsche), the LEAF can go about 100 miles per charge.  Moreover, it’s equipped with one very handy tool for drivers who may worry that in driving the LEAF, unlike your standard gas/diesel-powered car, you’ll feel uncomfortable with venturing too far lest you run out of juice with no ability to just “fill her up.”  Specifically, that would be a navigation station that details charging locations, and which keeps tabs on what is within range of the car given its charge levels—so you don’t run the risk of a visit to CVS resulting in getting stuck by the side of the road.

Some other cool LEAF features include a solar panel on the back (a “trickle” charger, essentially).  Like Hybrids, the more you brake when driving the LEAF, the more electricity you generate (so Nissan expects it to be attractive to city-dwellers).  Also interesting: The car itself is 99% recyclable, with the interior being made of recycled plastic bottles.  It’s also cheap to run: It costs about $3 to “fill up” the car.  As to lifecycle and recyclability of LEAF batteries, Nissan thinks buyers should expect to get about 10 years out of what’s in the car when they buy it, and for batteries to be recyclable and usable for civilian energy production as smart grid efforts proceed.  The LEAF will probably retail for a price in the range of a standard family sedan.

Another interesting development on display at the Auto Show was the Volkswagen Up! Lite, a concept car that is a combination Hybrid Clean Diesel:


A Volkswagen representative told me that the car gets about 73 miles to the gallon, is the lightest vehicle ever produced, and has an intuitive system that operates to keep the car running as energy-efficiently as is possible—all very cool stuff.  As it’s a concept car, one of my big questions was, will it ever actually come to market?  The Volkswagen guy didn’t want to make any commitment on that front, but did volunteer that a bunch of features that Volkswagen played with and integrated into the Up! Lite will be integrated into the new model Jettas, which could hit the market as early as next year.  Which features will be incorporated?  Stay tuned—whatever they are, my money would be on them making the VW Clean Diesel TDI cars even more green.

Also on display at the show was a Cadillac that is being converted so that it gets 100 mpg—something I thought I’d never see in this decade.  The Cadillac model being used for this is a standard model CTS.  Here’s a picture from the X-Team’s Facebook page, which you can check out here:

All in all, a lot of innovation is occurring in, and around, the industry.  These three cars are by no means the only examples of it—thought they do evidence it in spades. Keep an eye out for even more exciting green tech unrolling as we head into next year.

(Thanks to my Hynes colleague Ethan Kendrick for contributing to this post).  [intro]


* I consider myself a pretty green person, but suffice it to say I don't quite share the policy positions of Greenpeace.

(Further editor's notes: A) The Auto Alliance is a former client of mine and B) LEAF picture attributable to flickr user cliff1066; VW Up! Lite pictures attributable to flickr user stevelyon).



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