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Last Updated: Saturday, 19 January 2008, 00:18 GMT
Green future may be distant US dream
By Jorn Madslien
Business reporter, BBC News, Detroit auto show

A vision of a somewhat less detrimental automotive future will greet the 750,000 people who are expected to visit the Detroit auto show, which opens for the general public on Saturday, 19 January.

Trucks parked at the Detroit show
Trucks still dominate at this year's Detroit auto show

Pretty much every exhibit in the vast Cobo Center contains prominently-displayed cars powered by alternative fuel such as ethanol made from plants, or by engines powered by conventional fuels such as petrol and diesel that are up to 25% more efficient than they were in the past.

Most carmakers also display hybrid models, where such conventional engines are coupled with electric batteries that are getting smaller and lighter by the day, thus increasing the possible range travelled by electric cars.

"This auto show may be different from the past," observes David Friedman, research director at the Union of Concerned Scientists' Clean Vehicle Program.

"It may actually be giving a real good glimpse for some of the consumers of what might be out on the road in the next few years."

Rising prices

Auto makers are under pressure to produce more efficient cars that use less fuel and thus pollute less, in part because petrol prices have soared in recent years in the US, but also because they will soon be required to do so by law.

GM concept
Announcing the arrival of a technology does not mean it is ready for sale to consumers
Aaron Bragman,
Global Insight auto analyst

In December, US President George W Bush signed an energy bill that will force the industry to cut average emissions from all vehicles.

By 2020, the average must have been slashed by 40% to 35 miles per gallon, and the industry is convinced they will be able to deliver - though it will not come cheaply.

"It's going to come at some cost," says Paul Traub, economy and industry analyst, Chrysler, estimating that the auto makers' efforts to comply with environmental regulation could add as much as $7,000 (3,400) to the price of trucks and cars.

No sacrifice

But although polluting emissions are set to come down in the future, the industry is not about to ask drivers in America to make major sacrifices.

GM ethanol logo
Alternative fuels are amongst the proposed solutions

"Most of the impact is not going to be on total volumes or total spending, but on consumer choices," predicts Ted Chu, an economist at General Motors.

The industry will respond by "offering more creative packages", hence there should be a shift away from large trucks and cars towards smaller vehicles, he predicts.

Concept cars

On the show floor, there is little evidence of such a shift.

Big and powerful vehicles dominate, and although many of them are plastered with "hybrid" stickers it will be a long while before such models become widely available.

Cristin Lindsay
We're challenging the industry: Can't you deliver something a bit better, a bit sooner?
Cristin Lindsay, director of the X-prize foundation

"The number one rule of auto shows is to not get lured in by the hype," cautions Mr Friedman. "A lot of it could be concept cars."

"The astonishing part is that so much new technology and so many new vehicles are being introduced at the show," says Global Insight auto analyst Aaron Bragman.

But, he adds, "announcing the arrival of a technology does not mean it is ready for sale to consumers".

Could do better

The fact that many of the so-called greener models on display will take years to reach showrooms in America

"It's not good enough and it's not soon enough," says Cristin Lindsay of the Automotive X-prize competition, which is offering a $10m prize to encourage the creation of a commercially viable car that can do 100 miles per gallon.

"It's really critical that we get something soon, and much sooner than what's promised at this show," insists Ms Lindsay."

"We're challenging the industry: Can't you deliver something a bit better, a bit sooner?"

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