Shades of Green at the North American International Auto Show

Posted: 17 January 2008

Clean and green is the buzz at this year's North American International Auto Show at Cobo Hall with major automakers showing their latest greener concept cars, comparisons of fuel economy for flex-fuel cars, and the announcement that the American Le Mans Series is going an extra green mile on the racing circuit, the Environment News Service (ENS) reports from Detroit.

But not everyone is sold. "The green theme at this year's North American International Auto Show is window dressing," said Jodie Van Horn of the nonprofit Rainforest Action Network. "The environmental rhetoric coming out of the last two years of 'eco' auto shows does not reflect true vehicle production. The industry's goal has been to fool consumers into believing that automakers are producing eco-conscious cars. Nothing could be further from the truth."

The show is open to media and to the industry this week, and members of the public will be welcome to judge for themselves starting Saturday through January 27.

Honda's FCX Clarity
Honda's FCX Clarity
Honda's new hydrogen fuel cell car, the FCX Clarity, emits no greenhouse gases, only water. (Photo courtesy Honda)
Honda is showing the FCX Clarity fuel cell vehicle, which debuted in November at the Los Angeles Auto Show. The FCX Clarity will be available by lease to a limited number of retail consumers in Southern California with the first deliveries taking place in summer 2008.

The FCX Clarity is a zero-emissions, hydrogen-powered fuel cell vehicle powered by the new Honda V Flow fuel cell stack. The uses a new compact and efficient lithium ion battery pack and a single hydrogen storage tank to power the vehicle's electric drive motor.

Compared to the current-generation FCX, the Clarity features a 20-per cent increase in fuel economy, a 30-per cent increase in vehicle range to 270 miles; and a 45-per cent reduction in the size of the fuel cell powertrain - nearly equivalent, in terms of volume, to a modern gas-electric hybrid powertrain.

The FCX Clarity's only emission is water. Carbon dioxide, CO2, emissions come only from the production of hydrogen, which varies by source. The company says, "Well-to-wheel CO2 emissions using hydrogen reformed from natural gas - the most widely used method of production today - are less than half that of a conventional gasoline vehicle." With the production of hydrogen from water by electrolysis, CO2 emissions can be further reduced and ultimately approach zero if the electricity used for electrolysis is generated using solar, wind, water or nuclear power.

"The FCX Clarity is a shining symbol of the progress we've made with fuel cell vehicles and of our belief in the promise of this technology," said Tetsuo Iwamura, American Honda president and CEO. "Step by step, with continuous effort, commitment and focus, we are working to overcome obstacles to the mass-market potential of zero-emissions hydrogen fuel cell automobiles."

At a media reception, Katsuaki Watanabe, president of Toyota Motor Corporation, announced the company's new environmental agenda, including a new clean diesel V8 engine in both the Tundra and Sequoia "in the near future."

Toyota plans a cleaner diesel engine for its Tundra truck
Toyota plans a cleaner diesel engine for its Tundra truck
Toyota plans a cleaner diesel engine for its Tundra truck. (Photo courtesy Toyota)
Toyota has attracted environmentally conscious buyers for its hydrid Prius, but has also attracted negative attention for these larger, more polluting models.

By 2010, Toyota plans to deliver a global fleet of plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, powered by lithium-ion batteries, with many coming to the United States, Watanabe said.

Toyota has started the planning phase to expand its Panasonic joint-venture battery factory with an assembly line to build lithium batteries for automotive applications, he said.

At next year's show, Watanabe said Toyota will stage the world premieres of two all-new, dedicated hybrids, one for Toyota and one for Lexus. "These two introductions will move us closer to our goal of selling a million hybrids per year in the next decade," he said.

Fuelling breakthroughs

General Motors caused a stir by announcing a partnership with Coskata Inc. to use the Illinois company's technology that makes ethanol from practically any renewable source, including garbage, old tires and plant waste.

The Coskata process uses patented microorganisms and bioreactor designs to produce ethanol for less than $1 a US gallon, about half of today's cost of producing gasoline.

"We are very excited about what this breakthrough will mean to the viability of biofuels and, more importantly, to our ability to reduce dependence on petroleum," GM Chairman and CEO Rick Wagoner said.

Coskata's process uses less than a gallon of water to make a gallon of ethanol compared to three gallons or more for other processes and addresses the issues most often raised about grain-based ethanol production. According to Argonne National Laboratory, which analysed Coskata's process, for every unit of energy used, it generates up to 7.7 times that amount of energy, and it reduces carbon dioxide emissions by up to 84 per cent compared with a "well-to-wheel" analysis of gasoline.

GM's new partnership with the company that makes the Segway two-wheeled personal transporters shows up in the Saturn Flextreme electric concept car that integrates an onboard storage and charging system for two Segways. Drivers can park in a convenient location and unload a Segway to get to their ultimate destination. These Segways have retractable handlebars that allow for more compact storage, and the car's cargo area has ramps for loading and unloading. Inside the cargo space the Segways attach to a docking station where they recharge while the Flextreme batteries charge.

"Saturn has a legacy of environmental responsibility, so products like this Flextreme concept with its integrated Segway PTs showcase our continued pursuit of consumer-focused, green technologies," said Jill Lajdziak, Saturn's general manager.

GM's Saturn Flextreme
GM's Saturn Flextreme
GM's Saturn Flextreme. (Photo courtesy GM)
General Motors is aiming for a driving range of 444 miles on a single charge from the Saturn Flextreme, and the company wants this hybrid to go into production by 2010-2011.

Other GM introductions include the HUMMER HX concept, an E85-capable vehicle and a bioethanol concept by Saab.

Cadillac features the 2009 Escalade Hybrid, the world's first fuel-saving hybrid applied to a large luxury SUV that is supposed to deliver more than a 50-per cent improvement in fuel economy in city driving

Fisker Automotive is not a household name - yet - but may become one when drivers see the company's first production car, a green American premium sports car, the Fisker Karma, at the North American International Auto Show. The first of its kind four-door plug-in hybrid premium sports sedan will have a starting price of $80,000.

"In creating Fisker Automotive, Inc. we sought to develop a range of beautiful, environmentally friendly cars that make environmental sense without compromise," said Fisker Automotive CEO Henrik Fisker. "Our hope is that the Fisker Karma will be the start of a new trend in the automotive business - less concession with more efficiency."

Initial deliveries of the Karma will begin in the 4th quarter of 2009 with annual production projected to reach 15,000 cars. The first 99 cars off the assembly line will be individually numbered and signed by Henrik Fisker.

The Fisker Karma will offer partly self-contained climate control, as buyers can purchase a full length solar roof that will help charge the car and provide cooling for the interior cabin while the car is parked. A set of optional solar panels can be fitted to roofs or garages where they can generate electricity during the day to charge the car overnight.

Land Rover raised the curtain on its vision of the future Monday at the show with the world debut of the LRX hybrid concept. The LRX is conceived as being powered by a 2.0-litre, turbodiesel engine, capable of running on bio-diesel. In combination with other Land Rover technologies, this powertrain could reduce fuel consumption by as much as 30 percent compared with other SUVs of comparable size, as well as reduce emissions.

Interior innovations

Ford says its cars are getting greener even though improvements may be visible to consumers. Ford is launching soy foam technology in the seat cushions and seat backs of the 2008 Mustang and developing a sustainable bio-based replacement for the fiberglass now used between the headliner of a vehicle and the roof sheet metal.

Cushions of "green" polyurethane BioFoam made from plant oils, not petroleum, are being offered at the show by the Woodbridge Group, a Canadian company with 63 facilities operating in 21 countries.

Woodbridge seat cushions, seat fabric composites, head restraints, arm rests, occupant protection components, trim cover laminates and overhead systems come from Cargill's engineered plant oil Polyol.

Cargill's life cycle analysis of Polyol shows this technology reduces global warming emissions by 36 percent, non-renewable energy use by 61 percent, and reduces total energy demand. Several vehicles launching in 2008 will feature BioFoam products such as the 2009 Ford Escape.

Johnson Controls is showcasing the Ecobond headliner that uses soy-based adhesives, a soy-based urethane core foam, and natural fibres - reducing the need for non-renewable resources. Soy-based polyols are blended with petroleum polyols to create a foam core.

Natural materials, including hemp, flax and knaf, replace the fiberglass that is traditionally used in headliner production.

Byron Foster, who leads the North American interiors business of Johnson Controls, says, "The Ecobond headliner is made from natural fibers instead of glass, making the final product a lightweight, bio-based product, which can help increase fuel economy and reduce carbon emissions, and is easier to recycle at the end of the vehicle's useful life."

Le Mans greens the race

The American Le Mans Series wants to make its name as motorsports' global leader in alternative fuels. In pursuit of this goal, the racing group is partnering with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Department of Energy and SAE International to incorporate "green racing" principles into its 2008 racing season.

The first motorsports series to meet the criteria for green racing being developed by these groups, the American Le Mans Series announced the creation of a first-ever, Series-wide Green Racing Challenge.

This competition will encourage manufacturers to introduce and develop their green technologies and will be an incremental element of the Series' signature event - the 1,000-mile Petit Le Mans race to be held October 4 at Road Atlanta.

Protocols and criteria for the Green Racing Challenge award will be announced later this spring.

"The auto manufacturers competing in the American Le Mans Series have made it very clear that this is a direction and an overall initiative that is important to them," said Scott Atherton, president and CEO of the Series. "The opportunity to formally align with the Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Energy and SAE International makes our platform very special and unique - to auto manufacturers and ultimately to consumers.

The Series has more automobile manufacturers competing head-to-head than any other series in the world. All race cars in the Series compete on alternative fuels.

Auto marques that currently participate in the American Le Mans Series include Acura, Aston Martin, Audi, Corvette, Dodge, Ferrari, Ford, Mazda, Panoz, Porsche and Saleen.

For the last two seasons, Audi has competed with a clean diesel powered race car. Last year, the Ethanol Promotion and Information Council and fuel supplier VP Racing Fuels introduced E10 - 10 percent ethanol, 90 percent gasoline - the same blend that most consumers are able to buy at their local service station.

This season, the Series in conjunction with EPIC will introduce E85 - 85 percent ethanol, 15 percent gasoline - as one of its fuel options.

American Le Mans Series rules also support the introduction of an electric hybrid race car and encourage manufacturers to develop new technologies through racing that can be applied to improve the automobiles being built for consumers.

"Since its inception, Corvette has always been a platform for Chevrolet and GM to introduce and develop new technology," Chevrolet general manager Ed Peper said during today's announcement at the North American International Auto Show.

"Like the Corvette Z06 E85 concept car that will pace the 2008 Indianapolis 500, the use of E85 ethanol fuel by America's premier production sports car racing team in a high-profile, high-tech racing series like the American Le Mans Series shows that Chevy is continuing to lead by example.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS), January 16, 2008. All rights reserved.