Automakers Unveil New Hybrids at Detroit Show

GM

hide captionGM is co-developing a hybrid system with two other large automakers.

Jack Speer, NPR

At this year's North American International Auto Show in Detroit, just about every manufacturer has something new to offer, including new hybrid-engine vehicles from Toyota, Ford and General Motors. GM, which has been slow to embrace the technology, unveiled two new hybrids at this year's show.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

On Monday, we focus on technology and today, the latest in hybrids.

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INSKEEP: Changes in auto technology are evident at this year's North American International Auto Show in Detroit. Just about every manufacturer has something new to offer, including new hybrid engine vehicles from Toyota, Ford and General Motors. GM has been slow to embrace the technology, but unveiled two new hybrids at this year's show, including one with a new system that it's co-developing with two other big automakers. NPR's Jack Speer reports.

JACK SPEER reporting:

GM hasn't been leading the charge toward more fuel-efficient cars, and it's still possible to wonder just how serious it is about the whole idea. To introduce its new Camaro, a concept car, GM rolled out a parade of vintage muscle cars from the 1960s and let them roar.

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SPEER: But away from the Camaro engines, GM was peddling a different message: hybrids, two of them, ready to compete against the category killer, Toyota's fast-selling Prius. GM's first hybrid--a smallish, Saturn SUV--uses conventional technology and will get about 40 miles a gallon. But the second is different and more interesting. Next year, GM will offer a full-sized Chevy Tahoe SUV powered by a new kind of hybrid system. Brent Dewar is vice president of marketing at GM. He says building a big hybrid SUV makes perfect sense.

Mr. BRENT DEWAR (Vice President of Marketing, GM): If you have a Suburban or a Yukon XL that seats nine people, when you add some of this technology, your cost per person in the vehicle is a lot less. I mean, the average American family still needs their lifestyle that they want to have.

SPEER: GM says the system it's putting in the Tahoe will improve fuel efficiency by roughly 25 percent. Called a two-mode hybrid, the system was developed as part of a partnership with DaimlerChrysler and BMW. It will eventually wind up in vehicles sold by all three companies. Tim Grew(ph) is chief power train engineer for GM's hybrid program.

Mr. TIM GREW (Chief Power Train Engineer, GM Hybrid Program): A lot of one-mode systems can work good on smaller cars, lower-power performance. This system has all those benefits to it. When you're in the city, it's full engine off. You're running with no emissions, no fuel consumption. You want to go on the weekend, tow your boat? Vortec V-8 power. It's there for you. There's a computer on board that makes all the decisions for you, so it acts seamlessly. You don't have to be a genius to drive the car. You just get in it and you press your foot on the pedal, and it does everything you want it to do.

SPEER: And there are those who like the fact that GM is putting its new system in one of its least fuel-efficient models. They say by using hybrid technology in an area where GM still leads, the company could finally get a jump on one of its main competitors. Anthony Pratt is with J.D. Power and Associates.

Mr. ANTHONY PRATT (J.D. Power and Associates): From a marketing perspective, I think it's brilliant. In fact, that--Toyota doesn't have something to offer, and so rather than having a frontal attack, you know, they're having more of a flank attack and coming in on a segment where they're already ahead of the game and already currently control most of the share.

SPEER: Toyota has focused its hybrid technology primarily on small passenger cars rather than large trucks and SUVs. However, if engineers at Toyota are worried about GM's latest offerings, they aren't showing it. Toyota used the Detroit auto show to unveil a hybrid version of its Camry, the best-selling passenger car in North America last year. Tim Reinhert(ph) is head of Toyota's advanced vehicle technology group. He says the fact Toyota is willing to offer a hybrid version of its top-selling vehicle shows just how confident the Japanese automaker is.

Mr. TIM REINHERT (Advanced Vehicle Technology Group, Toyota): Most people would not take a risk with the Camry. They wouldn't; it's bread and butter. I mean, it's bread on the table. Why would you risk that? But we did it.

SPEER: But for all the attention being lavished on hybrids, they still represent a tiny share of the overall market; just over 1 percent of total sales. Thomas Keim, an engineer at MIT, has looked extensively at hybrids. He questions how much, if anything, automakers are actually making on the vehicles.

Mr. THOMAS KEIM (MIT): The question in my mind has always been one of cost. I wonder if the hybrids that are being sold today are profitable. I wonder if--even if they are profitable, or if they are as profitable as the mainline automobiles that are sold in so much larger quantity.

SPEER: But as the market for hybrids grows and the technology improves, most of the major automakers believe costs will come down. Anthony Pratt of J.D. Power forecasts continued growth for the hybrid market this year and steady, if not spectacular growth, in the years ahead.

Mr. PRATT: By 2012, we expect the volumes to increase up to 780,000 units. While that's significant growth, it still only represents right around 4.2 percent of the market. And the reason we believe the volumes won't increase more rapidly is their cost. The average consumer wants to see an economic break-even point.

SPEER: And right now it takes many years for the average savings on fuel to offset the additional costs. Altogether, the auto industry sold around 200,000 hybrids last year, with the Toyota Prius commanding half that market. However, despite the small market share, hybrids are viewed by automakers as image builders, and that's why none of the major car companies wanted to be without one this year in Detroit. But Detroit these days seems to have a split personality. That new Camaro...

(Soundbite of autos revving their engines)

SPEER: ...if GM does decide to build it, it will come with a 400-horsepower engine. Jack Speer, NPR News.

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