Auto Giants Put Best Wheel Forward in Los Angeles

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The Los Angeles Auto Show is the scene of hopes and dreams, for both automakers and consumers. John Ydstie talks to Paul Eisenstein, the publisher of thecarconnection.com, about the auto industry's direction.

JOHN YDSTIE, host:

The Los Angeles Auto Show opens this week. And it's no accident that in a state with so many drivers, recent memories of high gas prices, and a fair number of environmentally concerned consumers, auto manufacturers are showcasing more fuel-efficient and cleaner running machines.

Paul Eisenstein is publisher of the CarConnection.com and he's been scouting the offerings. Hello, Paul.

Mr. PAUL EISENSTEIN (Publisher, CarConnection.com): Hi, John. Good to be with you.

YDSTIE: So we've come 180 degrees from monster hummers to more fuel-efficient and cleaner-running cars. What are you seeing out there?

Mr. EISENSTEIN: Well, we're seeing quite a bit of vehicles focused on cleaner, more fuel-efficient technology. Vehicles like the Ultima hybrid from Nissan, their first ever hybrid, and we're hearing reports that we're going to be seeing some even more significant products in GM.

YDSTIE: You know, auto shows often have some Jetson-like devices that are awe-inspiring and get your attention but not necessarily coming into the showroom anytime soon. Are we going to be able to buy these models that you're saying?

Mr. EISENSTEIN: Yeah, that's what's very important about the stuff that the manufacturers are bringing out to the L.A. show, and they realize that consumers want it now. They don't want to just look at it and hear that, oh, maybe in a decade or so it'll be there. The challenge is rushing the new technology to market.

Ford, for example, is showing a fuel cell vehicle, a version of its explorer. This is an SUV that basically runs on hydrogen. And the only thing that comes out of the tailpipe would be water vapor. Exactly how soon that technology is in production we're not yet quite sure, but we're starting to see signs that it may hit market sooner than we used to believe.

YDSTIE: Of course, you've got to have an infrastructure that allows you to refuel your hydrogen car, and that's nowhere close to being in place.

Mr. EISENSTEIN: No. That's the biggest problem is this is a clean fuel with no easy way to produce it and distribute it.

YDSTIE: Back to the electric hybrids and less gas dependent cars, the Japanese have certainly made a commitment to this. Why have American manufacturers been so slow on the uptake?

Mr. EISENSTEIN: Well, not all the Japanese manufacturers have. Toyota has been hugely in favor of hybrid technology. Nissan, on the other hand, is just getting their first one out there. But there's no question that the American manufacturers have generally been slower. I think the U.S. manufacturers were a little bit skeptical about it, and it's a costly technology. They're going to be rushing it to market now. We're going to see a lot more.

GM hopes to leap in front of Toyota with a technology called the plug-in hybrid. It's sort of a halfway measure between a traditional electric vehicle where you just have batteries onboard. And the Toyota-style hybrid, we have batteries and gasoline engine onboard. What's interesting is the GM technology would allow you to actually plug it into the wall, charge up oversized batteries, and run almost exclusively on battery power while you're commuting.

But then if you needed to go long distances, you'd be able to use the gasoline engine. So, essentially, you'd have a vehicle that would be almost zero emissions during normal driving, but would not have the limited range of an electric vehicle.

YDSTIE: What's the hardest thing about creating a more fuel-efficient, cleaner car? Are there just trade-offs that carmakers don't think that buyers will want to make?

Mr. EISENSTEIN: Well, cost is certainly an issue. You want to put electric motors and batteries inside of the vehicle - well, that costs a lot more. It's a lot more complex with concerns about long-term durability for example. All these things have to be weighed not just by the consumer but by the manufacturer when they try and figure out whether they have a business case to be made.

YDSTIE: Paul Eisenstein, publisher of the CarConnection.com, in L.A. for the Los Angeles Auto Show. Thanks for joining us.

Mr. EISENSTEIN: Good to be with you, John.

(Soundbite of music)

YDSTIE: This is NPR News.

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