Thoughts on the State of the Auto Industry (2011 Detroit Auto Show)

detroit auto show 2011 photo

Photo: Michael Graham Richard
The State of the Auto Industry
Another year, another Detroit Auto Show (officially known as the North American International Auto Show -- open to the general public between Jan. 15-23). I've been to a few of them, and I've followed green(er) transportation for even longer, so I want to begin by sharing my thoughts about the current state of the auto industry, or at least the part that they reveal to the public. The main questions that I always ask myself when I go to these shows are: Are we moving in the right direction? Is it real or just PR? If we're moving, are we moving fast enough?
Gas Prices Medium Term chart

You could almost say that interest in more efficient cars follows this trend line. Date: U.S. Department of Energy. Image: Wikipedia, CC

It wasn't so long ago that anything green from the auto industry was an aberration. Big gas-guzzling SUVs ruled the bottom line for many years and gasoline was cheap, especially in the USA (and the chart above is in 2007 dollars, the nominal prices were lower in the 1990s and early 2000s, when the first hybrids were coming out). Interest for greener cars wasn't mainstream at all; there were a few small steps forward here and there, like the Honda Insight, Toyota Prius and RAV4 EV, and GM EV1. But for each of those, the auto industry was taking a few steps backward (the Hummer, crushing the EV1, reducing R&D; in small cars, etc).

Toyota prius V photo

Photo: Michael Graham Richard

Then around the middle of the past decade, there was a perfect storm (sorry, bad pun). Rising gas prices reached a peak after a particularly intense hurricane season (Katrina, Wilma, Rita). The second generation Toyota Prius was starting to get some traction after years of being mostly ignored by mainstream buyers, and small cars were slowly making a comeback. In 2006, Al Gore's documentary was surprisingly popular (especially for a documentary film) and the mainstream media started to talk a lot more about green and energy issues (often in a very superficial way, but at least at first it wasn't quite as politically polarizing as it is now). The next big catalyst was no doubt the global financial meltdown and resulting recession. It forced the U.S. auto industry to do a complete reboot, and many carmakers around the world had to change their priorities, which included a lot of consolidation (making the same models available globally, which means that many fuel efficient cars from Europe will come to the USA) and big bets on electrification (Nissan and GM made put the most chips on this, but others are right behind). Which brings us to...

What Now?
The situation now is a bit strange. Carmaker executives are competing with each other to be the biggest hybrid and electric car cheerleaders, including those that had dismissed hybrids and electric cars just a few year ago (*cough* Bob Lutz *cough* Carlos Ghosn). Pretty much all press conferences at the 2011 Detroit Auto Show mentioned the environment or fuel efficiency: Ford had Ed Begley Jr. on screen talking about how green Ford's electric and hybrid cars are, even taking a potshot at Nissan by saying that the Ford Focus Electric will recharge twice as fast as the LEAF, Hyundai talked a lot about its "green" manufacturing processes and how its new compact (post about it coming soon, stay tuned) will get better MPG than the Honda CR-Z hybrid, Toyota spent a lot of time talking about how ahead of the curve they were with the Prius hybrid and how they are expanding the "green" family, etc.

This is certainly better than what we had before, but is it good enough? A lot of it is greenwashing for sure. A way to attract attention on the small good things that they're doing while in the shadows it's business as usual. But that's not all there is to it. The car makers are really changing, even if not everybody within these massive organisations is on board. I think that the most frustrating thing for most people is how slowly things are progressing. What we must keep in mind is that large industrial companies move at a pace different from, say, the software industry. It takes years to design vehicles and to retool factories, and it always take longer than expected with new technologies (compare the lithium-ion batteries of 5-10 years ago with those that we have now).

detroit 2011 eco assist challenge photo

Photo: Michael Graham Richard

But I try to remain optimistic. There are already more decent choices for car buyers, and there's a lot of interesting things in the pipeline. It's still much better to walk, bike, or take public transit. But cars have to improve if only because even the most anti-car purist probably can't convince all their friends and family to get rid of their cars (unless they already live somewhere where it's more convenient not to have a car), so what are the chances that cars will disappear anytime soon? The next best thing is to have cars that have a much smaller negative impact on the environment.

More on Green(er) Cars
Video Autopsy of a Tesla Model S Electric Car
Every Chevy Volt is Road-Tested Before Delivery
Tesla Motors Will Make $60 Million From Toyota's Electric RAV4
BYD Stops Production of F3e Electric Car (At Least for Now)
With 11 Days to Go, Chevy Volt #1 Charity Auction Reaches $180,000
GM to Hire 1,000 Engineers & Researchers to Develop Electric Vehicles
Honda Unveils the Fit EV Concept and a Plug-In Hybrid Platform

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