Recent economic turmoil, coupled with record oil prices, have forced automakers and suppliers to rethink their green strategy. But, new initiatives to build electric vehicles is creating a huge demand for batteries, electric motors and other types of components.
Traditionally, the Paris Auto Show features sleek bodies and stylish designs. But, during the two-week show last October, all the oohs and aahs were reserved for what’s under the skin. Automakers unveiled a wide variety of green cars featuring alternative propulsion systems. Suppliers also unveiled new technology, such as in-wheel electric motors, aimed at improving fuel efficiency and reducing emissions.
The underlying message from the Paris event was that the green car revolution, which started quietly a few years ago, was finally about to go mainstream. However, some of that green buzz died down by the time that the North American International Auto Show opened in Detroit last month.
Recent economic turmoil, coupled with low oil prices, have forced automakers and suppliers to rethink their green strategy. “All of a sudden, green cars aren’t in fashion with consumers,” says Dave Cole, chairman of the Center for Automotive Research (Ann Arbor, MI). “Economics is the big concern in the auto industry today. Somehow, we need to bridge the gap between where we are right now and the time when green cars are produced in high volumes.
“In recent months, there’s been a huge decline in hybrid sales,” adds Cole. “Things looked terrific six months ago, but not now. The threshold is $70-a-barrel oil. Anything lower than that makes green cars much harder to sell.”
Cole believes widespread interest in green car technology will heat up again in 2010. That’s when General Motors Corp. (GM, Detroit) plans to begin mass-producing the Chevy Volt at its Detroit-Hamtramck plant.
The much-anticipated car is touted as an extended-range electric vehicle. For trips up to 40 miles, the Volt will be powered by a 16-kilowatt-hour, T-shaped lithium-ion battery. Drivers will plug the front-wheel-drive, four-passenger car into a standard 230-volt household outlet for charging.
“We see the development of vehicles powered by electricity as key to the transformation of our industry,” says Bob Lutz, GM’s vice chairman of global product development. “And, advanced battery technology is at the heart of this transformation.”
To supply the Volt, General Motors plans to build the first lithium-ion battery pack assembly facility in the U.S. operated by a major automaker. The plant, which will be located in Michigan, will ramp up production in 2010 using cells supplied by LG Chem Ltd. (Seoul, South Korea) and its local subsidiary, Compact Power Inc. (Troy, MI).
At the recent Detroit show, several other automakers generated publicity by unveiling green cars: