It's safe to say that the U.S. auto industry has never been "greener" than it is now. Everywhere you turn, you see ads for -- or newspaper stories about -- such enviro-friendly technologies as hybrid cars, fuel-cell technology, Bio-diesel fuel, E-85 fuel, clean-diesel engines and fuel-cell technology. These and other "green technologies" have gained a lot of traction at America's Big Three carmakers in the last few years.

The reason? Carmakers are under increased pressure, not just from the White House and Congress, but also from consumers, to develop cars that burn cleaner fuel or reduce our dependency on foreign oil.

In the past, General Motors, Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler LLC have been playing catch-up to foreign entries like the Toyota Prius which has gained a lot of attention, both because of its hybrid technology and green benefits and because enviro-conscious Hollywood stars have been promoting them. But Detroit's recent efforts demonstrate that the gap is closing.

While all of the above-mentioned technologies have their support from different quarters, none has emerged as the ultimate answer. So, the industry is conducting a multi-tiered approach toward developing all of them at once. Each camp is confident that theirs will the one that emerges as the leading "green-tech" winner. And whichever one comes out as the most cost effective, most practical and most doable -- well, they stand to cash in big time.

Obviously, one incentive to go greener is a response to the nudging from the federal government, especially Congress. But some of it is simply due to listening to the customer. Buyers are more savvy today than ever, so they're making their voices heard -- they want cars that produce lower emissions or reduce the consumption of natural resources.

"It really does just make good business sense for the automakers to be going more green," says David Cole, chairman of the Center for Automotive Research, in Ann Arbor. "A great many consumers today are concerned about the environment, so it ultimately becomes a question of corporate responsibility -- that is, consumers want to buy products from companies that are doing their part to use less energy and reduce emissions."

Bob Babik, General Motors' Director of Energy and Environment, echoes those sentiments. "The global, and the U.S., auto industry must, as a business necessity, develop alternative sources of energy ... to reduce dependency on petroleum," says Babik. "So, for GM's part, we're already offering 14 models of Flex Fuel vehicles capable of running on E85 (the fuel that is 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline) -- with two million of those vehicles already on the road."

John Viera, Director of Sustainability, Environment & Safety Engineering for Ford Motor Company, is also on aboard with that philosophy. "Consumers are increasingly concerned about high fuel prices, energy security and climate change," says Viera. "With these challenges comes great opportunity. The companies that make the high-quality products and services that consumers really value -- and do so in ways that limit harm to the environment and maximize benefits to society -- will be preferred in the marketplace."

GM is currently quite active in the new-hybrid-car sweepstakes: Its Saturn Vue Greenline and Saturn Aura Greenline are already on the market, while the 2008 Chevy Tahoe and GMC Yukon two-mode hybrids will launch this fall. A hybrid version of the Chevy Malibu will also hit showrooms for the 2008 model year. "In all, GM will bring 12 hybrid vehicles to market over the next four years," says Babik.

If one had to handicap the green-technology race, it would seem that hybrid cars are the current front runner. And competing companies are even putting their heads together. Four automakers have joined forces to develop a hybrid drive system. The Hybrid Development Center in Troy, Mich. -- a Detroit suburb -- is a joint effort by Mercedes-Benz, Chrysler, General Motors and the BMW Group that pools the engineering resources of all four companies. The goal is to develop a core hybrid technology for SUVs, pick-up trucks and luxury cars. By sharing their technological breakthroughs, the four automakers are hoping to parlay their economies of scale and combined development capacity into a more rapid turnaround from product development to practical commercial use.

The Center has yielded definite benefits. Using what they learned and developed at the Hybrid Development Center, GM is rolling out hybrid versions of the Chevrolet Tahoe and GMC Yukon SUVs for model year 2008. Meanwhile, Chrysler is launching the Dodge Durango Hybrid and the Chrysler Aspen Hybrid for the 2009 model year. These vehicles can alternately be powered by the electric motors or by the HEMI V-8 engine.

The modular two-mode hybrid powertrain yielded by this joint effort includes an electrically-variable transmission that uses two electric motors. It's dubbed "two-mode" because it is capable of both low-and high-speed electric continuously variable transmission modes.

The Durango Hybrid and Aspen Hybrid are the first hybrid vehicles offered by Chrysler. The HEMI hybrid is expected to deliver an overall fuel economy improvement of more than 25 percent, including a 40-percent boost in city driving.

"Putting a hybrid engines into large vehicles like SUVs and pick-up trucks is a logical move," says Dr. Andreas Truckenbrodt, the Executive Director of Hybrid Programs for Mercedes and Chrysler at the Hybrid Center. "Think about it -- if a hybrid engine boosts gas mileage 25 percent -- and then you drop that engine into a sedan or coupe that’s already getting 30 mpg, the increase in actual fuel savings is not as significant" as it is if you put it into a lumbering SUV or truck that was only getting 15 or 20 mpg to begin with.

"We also believe it's important to deliver larger vehicles to consumers that are more fuel-efficient, because you just can't force people into smaller vehicles if they don't want them," says Truckenbrodt. "A lot of consumers just want or need larger vehicles, either for their utility, like towing a boat or trailer, or because they have two kids and two dogs, and a small car just doesn't meet their needs."

Ford is embracing a similar philosophy regarding hybrids. Ford's existing hybrids are also SUVs -- the 2008 Ford Escape Hybrid SUV and its sister vehicle, the 2008 Mercury Mariner Hybrid. Ford says that both have improved their in-city fuel economy numbers to 34 mpg -- a 14 percent improvement over the 2007 editions.

The Escape / Mariner Hybrids are "full hybrids." That means that, depending on the driving situation, they automatically switch back and forth between purely electric power and purely gas-engine power -- or a combination of the two. The goal of this "switching" function is to attain just the exact balance of efficiency and performance. When working together, the electric motor and gas engine provide performance similar to that of a conventional V-6 engine. But the real savings comes in situations where less power is needed -- in which case the vehicles can run on electric power alone at speeds of up to 25 mph.

Electric motors in general are most efficient in the stop-and-go driving conditions typical of in-city sprints or rush-hour madness. And Ford reports that the Escape Hybrid actually delivers 80 percent better fuel economy in the city than the conventional V-6 Escape. Ford says it will also launch a hybrid version of their popular Fusion sedan in late 2008.

But the hybrid vehicle getting the most attention in recent months has been the Chevrolet Volt, which is not yet on the market, because battery technology has not yet evolved to the point where the Volt can attain its goal. That goal? Allowing the driver to travel up to 40 miles powered by its electric motor. (The Volt also comes with a more conventional internal combustion engine, however).

In July, when the U.S Senate began making noises about a new energy bill that would require Detroit carmakers to attain an average fuel economy of 35 miles per gallon by 2022, GM's Troy Clarke head of North American Operations, appeared before Congress with a "visual aid" -- a Chevy Volt. His hope was to win over legislators by convincing them that alternative fuels and hybrids -- not draconian, budget-busting fuel-economy standards -- were a more practical way to achieve higher mileage standards.

Last July, the Electric Power Research Institute and Natural Resources Defense Council hosted a conference on the future of plug-in hybrids and GM sent a Volt to that event as well. Those groups issued a report this past summer asserting that mass usage of plug-in hybrids could yield a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles by more than 450 million metric tons annually in 2050. That would be roughly the same as removing 82.5 million passenger cars from the road.

One other way of "going green" has nothing to do with the engine. We're talking about the use of more enviro-friendly seating materials. For example, Ford says that the 2008 Escape and Escape Hybrid are believed to be the first U.S. auto-biz applications of 100-percent recycled fabric seating surfaces. The new fabric is provided by Interface Fabrics, Inc, and is produced from "post-industrial waste" -- meaning anything intended for retail use but never made it to the consumer, such as plastic intended for soda bottles or polyester fibers that were never dyed.

In July, Ford announced that the 2008 Mustang will be the first production vehicle to use soy-based foam in its seats. Shades of Henry Ford! Working with Southfield-based seat-maker Lear Corp., Ford said the new technology would use soybean oil to replace some, but not all, of the petroleum typically used to make the seat foam. Since the soy-based foam uses less energy during production, the amount of CO2 released into the atmosphere is also reduced.

But back to the auto industry's "race for the environmental cure." Ford's Viera observes that "we're all working on all of these technologies, but one that has the best end result, with zero carbon-based emissions, is the hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle, which also requires the greatest leap forward in technology to make it commercially viable."

"But, ultimately, the solution will likely not be just one technology," he says. "It will probably be a number of different technologies that meet the needs of different customers in many different markets."


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