Hybrids, E85 or Diesels? Automakers hedge their bets
As the dust settles from the flurry of announcements and unveils at NAIAS 2006 and the 2006 L.A. Auto Show, the battle lines are forming up between fuel efficient and low emissions technologies competing for the hearts and minds of North American car buyers.
The current leader in the green PR campaign, Toyota, must be considered the standard-bearer for hybrids. After making its mark with the niche market Prius, Toyota is taking the technology into the mainstream, introducing hybrid versions of its key sedan models - the Camry and Lexus LS.
Ford and GM, while playing catch-up with hybrid technology, are pushing a solution that's easy to implement - flexible fuel vehicles, running E85 ethanol-based fuel. While both manufacturers have FFVs in production, the solution is hampered by fuel supply and distribution issues. FFVs were a hot topic at the L.A. show last week.
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Meanwhile, GM, BMW and DaimlerChrysler have partnered to develop what GM calls its Two Stage Hybrid technology. Both GM and BMW are exhibiting similar systems in Detroit this week.
Nissan will come out with a hybrid Altima this year, but only because California CAFE regulations require it, according to Carlos Ghosn. The automaker seems to be focusing on diesel cars for fuel efficiency, saying hybrids are not yet profitable at an acceptable price point.
Honda, the first automaker to introduce a hybrid production car in the U.S., is also unconvinced that hybrids are the best solution. At the Detroit auto show, Honda revealed plans to launch a hydrogen fuel cell sedan in about three years, as well as its intent to offer diesel cars in the U.S.
But it was DaimlerChrysler's Dieter Zetsche who really put the diesel fox among the hybrid chickens with his announcement of aggressive plans to market the company's BLUETEC clean-diesel technology in the U.S., starting with a BLUETEC-powered Mercedes E320 sedan in the fall of 2006.
If (and its a big if) adequate supplies and distribution channels can be found for the low-sulfur diesel required by BLUETEC and other clean-diesel technologies, this could well become the solution with the broadest market acceptance in the near term. With more than half the cars currently sold in Europe powered by diesels, the odds certainly seem to be in Zetsche's favor.
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