Washington Auto Show: Green Technology Officially Mainstream

The Washington Auto Show included hybrid and alternative fuel models from all major car makers.

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This is a guest post by U.S. News production coordinator Leandro Oliva.

Yesterday I had the opportunity to attend the annual Washington Auto Show, where I scoured the showroom floor looking for green technology in the current and upcoming lineup of cars for the 2010/11 model year. While the auto show here in D.C. is not known to be the first place automakers unveil their new designs in the U.S. (that honor is usually reserved for the Detroit and L.A. Auto shows), there was nonetheless a very strong showing in alternative fuel and hybrid-electric models.

Among the American car makers, Ford carries the distinction of having its midsized Fusion Hybrid as the North American Car of the Year, offering a sedan with a very respectable 41 MPG city/36 hwy, powered by a nickel-metal hydride battery and a 2.5L Atkinson Cycle I-4 engine. While the 'rental car' styling of the Fusion is simply on par with the Toyota Camry and other vehicles in its class, there are thoughtful green features, such as its 100 percent "earth friendly" yarn upholstery and the use of recycled materials within the interior, which make it an appealing purchase for eco-minded consumers. Also on display were Ford's other hybrid vehicles, including those offered by its sister brand, Mercury. These include the small-sized SUV, the Escape, and its Mercury variant, the Mariner. Both models remain almost unchanged for 2010, with the exception of a few additional equipment offerings.

Meanwhile, GM showcased its entry into the widening hybrid segment with the Chevy Volt, and its upmarket cousin, the Converj Cadillac concept vehicle, first introduced at the Detroit Auto Show in January 2009. While the striking concept model will likely never see the light of day, it is a good sign of things to come from GM and Cadillac, as it demonstrates a mature understanding of where hybrid technology is headed. Among the more interesting technology demonstrated by the Converj is its organic LED (OLED) displays, the adaptive charging system--which can replenish the vehicle's  battery at 120v in eight hours (less than three hours at 240 v) while avoiding the electric grid's busiest and most expensive peak times--as well as the absence of side-view mirrors, which are instead replaced by small electronic cameras, which help to reduce the vehicle's drag and up efficiency. And yet, as GM's representative breezily remarked during a presentation of the vehicle, the sleek and aggressive lines of the Converj belie its true, practical nature as a mere 40-mile "electric commuter"--meaning, if you're looking for a high performance electric sports car from GM, one may look elsewhere (you can try Tesla, but not for much longer).

While in the U.S. automakers seem to have concentrated on biofuel and hybrid drivetrains, European brands such as Audi, Mercedes and BMW instead offered a wide array of diesel vehicles at the Washington Auto Show. Diesel technology has long struggled to gain a foothold within the American car market, though it's been far more popular in Europe for decades now. With the push for increased efficiency and limits on CO2 emissions in the last few years, European brands have responded by offering " clean diesel" alternatives, which offer good performance and decreased emissions. If differentiating between the environmental benefits of hybrid vehicles versus "clean diesel" technology seems confusing, consider the fact that the 2010 "Green Car of the Year" was the Audi A3 TDI, competing against such vehicles as the Honda Insight hybrid, the Mercury Milan Hybrid, and the Toyota Prius. In a lot of ways, clean diesel can be considered a practical alternative to existing hybrid vehicles, which can often tack on thousands of dollars (about nine thousand depending on trim, in the case of the Ford Fusion Hybrid) over their standard gasoline variants. Moreover, considering the totally eye-watering price tags on European auto-makers' hybrid models--such as 89K for BMW's Active Hybrid X6, or 107K for an Active Hybrid 750Li--clean diesel could be considered the only environmentally focused option for most consumers of European imports at this time.

Meanwhile, as the third generation of Toyota's popular hybrid vehicle, the Prius, continues on its successful run, the brand is still tempting American consumers with its plug-in variant at the DC Auto Show, since its debut in Los Angeles late last year. What is the difference between the Plug-in Hybrid vehicle (PHV) and the conventional Prius currently on the road? Well, aside from the obvious -- the plug-in Prius can be hooked up to your power grid for a charge-up -- the PHV version offers far greater all-electric cruising: 13 miles versus the current 1 mile limit. Toyota has already announced plans to offer an affordable plug-in Prius to consumers by 2011, and it has touted "triple-digit" fuel cell economy (134 mpg according to Toyota's display; that's pretty solid). Undoubtedly, increased competition in the hybrid segment from a newly aggressive Honda, Nissan, Ford and GM have pushed the Japanese automaker to offer concrete plans on the PHV model, as it seeks to maintain its lead with green auto technology. Undoubtedly, as with the current Prius (so far), the pedals will be issue-free on this model.

Probably the best looking of the upcoming hybrids comes from Honda, in the form of the 2011 CR-Z, a vehicle which borrows a lot of the spirit of the much beloved, sneaker-shaped CR-X, along with some design out of the trend setting electric with the not-so-beloved looks, the first generation Insight. The CR-Z is slated to go on sale in the U.S. in late 2010, and is meant to offer a sportier but affordable alternative to its family-oriented competitors.

Now, as with all car shows, DC's also featured a few wackier concept entries, the most interesting of which was Hyundai's Blue-Will. The Korean automaker is touting the Blue-Will as a 'test bed' of new ideas, and offers some unique green concepts, including a thermal generator which converts the vehicle's hot exhaust gases into electric power. Hyundai claims that a production version of the Blue-Will would have a range of 20 to 40 miles strictly on battery power (lithium polymer), with advances in light materials, solar roof panel and reduced drag with the absence of side-view mirrors all helping the vehicle's total fuel efficiency. As with the Cadillac Converj, the take-away from the Washington Auto Show is that automakers seem to be embracing that magical 40 mile range as a standard target for electric-only mode, this being the distance most drivers in the U.S. travel on their daily commutes.

All in all, there was a lot to like about the environmental technology offerings from all major car makers. While only a few years ago electric and hybrid vehicles would have been relegated to the sparsely attended geek-mobile section showcasing models from Aptera or TH!NK, consumers now have the option to go green with their vehicle purchases at practically every price level, vehicle category, and from essentially all car makers. If you'd like to learn more about the sustainable technology that was showcased at the Washington Auto Show, you can visit their website's Advanced Technology Superhighway section. Be sure to check out offerings from the smaller car makers, such as Wheego Electric Vehicles, which unveiled its first "full speed," all-electric Wheego Whip Li at the Washington Auto Show.