Green is the new gold in the auto-making world. From Detroit to Tokyo to Schenzhen, domestic and foreign carmakers are beginning to showcase a new generation of vehicles that run on electricity or hybrid power. While the recent plunge in gasoline prices has made it far cheaper to drive a conventionally fueled vehicle than just a few months ago — when pump prices exceeded $4 a gallon — experts say fuel efficiency remains a top priority for drivers.
“Consumers are completely reconsidering everything about buying a car, in terms of what attributes they're looking for,” said Stephen Berkov, executive director of client strategy at Edmunds.com, an automotive Web site. “Now, the No. 1 factor would be fuel efficiency — that's a paradigm shift. Automotive marketing has always been about performance, and now it's about fuel efficiency.”
Such sentiment explains automakers' zeal for new vehicle technology that not only preserves natural resources and the environment but also draws drivers to new-car showrooms. President Barack Obama's pledge to promote clean energy and green jobs could boost interest in hybrid and electric vehicles, as could a resurgence in gas prices that is likely to occur with a revival of the world economy.
Along with established car companies, high-profile niche players are racing to develop green cars. They include Tesla Motors Inc., a small California company building high-performance, all-electric cars selling for more than $100,000.
But developing green cars is expensive and time-consuming, the technology behind them continues to evolve and the consumer market is subject to swings in oil prices and buyer whims. In December, Toyota said it was putting on hold indefinitely the opening of a new Mississippi plant built to produce the gasoline-electric Prius hatchback.
On the other hand, the cost of green cars could fall as production volumes increase and technology advances. Green cars are getting support from government officials and others seeking to reduce dependence on oil. In Hawaii, the state government and Hawaiian Electric Co. endorsed a plan in December to create a system featuring a network of recharging stations and battery-swap sites for use by electric cars. The plan calls for a partnership with Better Place, an alternative energy company founded by former software executive Shai Agassi.
William C. Ford Jr., executive chairman of the Ford Motor Co., which is aiming to sell an all-electric, battery-powered vehicle by 2011, told The New York Times that his company felt compelled by competitive pressure to offer electric cars. “Frankly, I think it's a gamble not to do it. It's clear that society is headed down this road.”
Ford's electric vehicle, which the company says will be able to travel 100 miles on a single charge, is part of a plan to market four new hybrid or electric Fords in the next four years. Ford has been selling hybrids — which combine gasoline and battery power — since 2004, when it introduced the hybrid model of its Escape SUV. Ford is expected to begin selling a 2010 hybrid model of its Fusion midsize sedan this spring. Its 41-miles-per-gallon in-city driving and 36 on the highway beats Toyota's Camry hybrid (33 and 34 miles per gallon, respectively).
Ford's effort is just one example of the race to embrace green cars. Here are some other efforts revving up:
General Motors plans to begin selling its heavily promoted Chevrolet Volt electric car in fall 2010. Expected to cost from $30,000 to $40,000, the Volt is propelled by an electric motor that runs on lithium-ion batteries that can be recharged from a home electric outlet.
The batteries are designed to last for the first 40 miles, after which a gasoline generator can keep the batteries charged and the car going for up to 400 miles at the equivalent of 50 miles per gallon, according to GM. Recharging the battery takes between three and six-and-a-half hours, depending on whether a 110-volt or 220-volt supply is used.
GM showed off an electric Cadillac Converj concept car at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit in January.
Chrysler introduced three electric prototypes last year — the Dodge EV, Jeep EV and Chrysler EV. The company intends to introduce an electric vehicle for the North American market in 2010.
Japanese carmakers — and even the Chinese — also are moving aggressively into the electric-car market:
Toyota, a leader in hybrid gasoline-battery technology, plans to sell a small all-electric car in 2012 and to test a plug-in version of its hybrid Prius using lithium-ion batteries late this year. It also reportedly is developing a solar-powered vehicle, though marketing is thought to be years away.
Honda plans a new version of its Honda Insight hybrid in April that is expected to sell for no more than $20,000, or about 10-20 percent below the price of a Prius.
Mitsubishi and Fuji Heavy Industries, Subaru's parent companies, are testing electric cars, and Nissan's CEO has said it will have an electric car for U.S. and Japanese consumers as soon as 2010.
Chinese company BYD Auto Co. set a target date of 2011 to begin selling an electric crossover vehicle and a plug-in hybrid sedan.