The following blog is by Zoe Lipman, Senior Policy Advisor for the BlueGreen Alliance.
It’s been a great year for the auto industry. The cars are better than ever, U.S. plants are still adding shifts, and sales are at levels not seen since 2007. What’s more, we can all feel good because the industry’s success isn’t just driven by the economic recovery, it’s been a big part of driving that recovery.
The mood at the Detroit auto show this year was accordingly upbeat but surprisingly modest. Many of the flashy high tech model announcements have happened over the previous couple years and, as one GM exec said as we were discussing the active grille shutters* on a Buick Lacrosse, “now we’re just driving all these innovations throughout the product line.” Hardly ‘just’!
Pictured left: Checking out the new UAW-built luxury electric Cadillac ELR in Detroit with Ruben Flores of the UAW.
Similarly, we were all like whatever, when Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rolled out its annual update to fueleconomy.gov last month. At fueleconomy.gov you can compare fuel economy between vehicles of any type and any year, and it always includes a listing of the most efficient vehicles in every size class (compact, midsize, small station wagon etc). This year, the most efficient vehicles in six out of the eight car categories got more than 100mpg! And so far as I can tell, no one noticed.
We are in a whole new world. We’ve already taken it for granted and that’s big news. It’s here to stay.
But let’s get back to the auto shows. The Detroit show has just wrapped up but the DC auto show is happening now, so those in DC have until February 2 to see what’s new in auto. Here are my highlights from an all too quick walk through the North American International Auto Show in Detroit:
- EVs, and innovation, everywhere: It’s hard to imagine that just 5 years ago, at the 2009 show, there was huge buzz about electric cars, but only one—the luxury Tesla Roadster sports car was out on the road. The first mass market EV—the Chevy Volt—arrived in dealerships in 2010, with others following shortly thereafter.
- We’ve seen a proliferation of options across the continuum from very efficient gasoline engines to all electric. In 2009, there was the conventional hybrid Prius, today there are 4 Prii—several hybrids, a plug-in hybrid electric, and a solely electric RAV4. But the same is true of Foci and Chevyi and BMWii. At its innovative newly retooled plant in Wayne, Michigan, Ford builds the Ford Focus and Ford CMAX with different types of powertrains on the same flexible assembly line, turning out these vehicles with high-efficiency gasoline engines, as hybrids, plug in hybrid electric vehicles or electric-only.
- Meanwhile…new trucks, and other big, powerful, fuel-efficient things: And let’s be clear, the auto innovation is taking place across every type of vehicle. Five years ago the Ford F150 was the best-selling vehicle in America. It still is. But now its ten percent more fuel efficient and more powerful. Ford gets kudos for its display in Detroit complete with manufacturing robots showing its new all-aluminum body which will shave 700 pounds off the weight of the 2015 model to take fuel economy and performance improvements even further. Meanwhile, the 2014 Chevy Silverado won the auto show’s “truck of the year” and boasts new more efficient EcoTech gas engine (cylinder deactivation!) and an impressive range of wireless utility, safety and communications functions, while the new Ram 1500 brings a high tech diesel engine (compacted graphite iron!) back to the half-ton pickup market. To deliver these new trucks, aluminum companies like Novelis and Alcoa have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in plants in New York, Iowa and Tennessee to meet growing automotive aluminum demand, while steel companies innovate in high strength steel and others produce carbon fiber.
So whether you’re going to head over to the DC auto show to check out the aerodynamic underpanels in the Dodge Dart, or you prefer the Audi R8 (it was good enough for Iron Man), the Kia Soul hamsters (definitely in D.C. last year), or the Jeep Grand Cherokee (hear from the people who make it), the current automotive renaissance means is that there’s innovation—and big fuel savings—for everyone, and it’s worth taking a moment to notice.
*Active grill shutters are louvers behind the front grill that open at low speeds or when the engine needs cooling but close at high speeds to improve aerodynamics and therefore, fuel economy.
**That’s after the federal rebate, but without accounting for the fact that they will only cost a $1/gallon to fill up.
***DC gets a little short changed in the luxury segment this year. Tesla doesn’t usually show up at the DC auto show, but you can walk a few blocks to the Tesla show room on 11th street if you want to take a look. The EV BMWi3 will be in DC, but, unfortunately for those of us who have a weakness gull wings, we won’t see the electric BMWi8.