Special Coverage

Chicago Auto Show

CHICAGO – General Motors Corp. expects to continue selling V-8-powered fullsize pickups and SUVs in “substantial volume” by 2020, when new vehicles will be required to achieve 35 mpg (6.7 L/100 km), a top executive tells journalists at the Chicago auto show here.

Troy Clarke, GM President North America, says the auto maker also expects to sell more diesel, hybrid-electric, ethanol-capable and V-6 pickups in that timeframe, but that the V-8 will not be displaced.

Three years ago, industry observers faced with the prospect of fuel prices more than doubling would have predicted Detroit’s three auto makers would sell half as many fullsize pickups and SUVs, Clarke says.

Instead, sales have fallen only 5% for GM.

Stabilizing the cost of fuel – particularly by relying more heavily on second-generation, cellulosic ethanol produced with an innovative new low-cost technology developed by GM partner Chicago-based Coskata Inc. – will ease concerns for budget-conscious consumers contemplating a new-vehicle purchase, Clarke says.

“Whether fuel is $3 or $4 a gallon, I think you could still say you would sell millions of fullsize pickups and SUVs in this country,” he says. “That’s one of the real advantages of ethanol.”

Additionally, V-8 gasoline engines also are bound to shrink in displacement and become more efficient, securing the V-8’s place in the new corporate average fuel economy environment, he says.

Despite environmental concerns in some parts of the U.S., certain rural sectors still want rugged capability. Clarke mentions North Dakota as a market dominated by pickups.

“We sell, like, 1,100 cars (annually) in North Dakota,” he says. “Everything else we sell is pickups. I don’t want to try to pretend to understand the demand, but it’s there.”

Clarke says efforts to rapidly commercialize Coskata’s new ethanol-production technology will secure a steady supply of the trucks in the future.

This week, Coskata announced a strategic alliance with engineering firm ICM Inc., the largest builder of ethanol plants in the country, to construct the first commercial facility to mass-produce non-foodstock, cellulose-based ethanol using Coskata’s technology.

The ICM-designed plant, to open in late 2010, will be Coskata’s first ethanol plant.

The innovative process allows cellulosic ethanol to be produced from almost any renewable source, including wood, garbage, manure, old tires and factory waste, at a projected cost of less than $1 per gallon, while consuming less than 1 gallon (3.8 L) of water per gallon of ethanol produced.

The cost at the pump is expected to be between $0.50 and $1.50 less than regular unleaded gasoline. Consumers currently pay about the same price for conventionally produced E85 ethanol as gasoline.

“This is no science experiment,” Clarke says in a keynote speech to start the Chicago show press-preview days. “Coskata expects to have their pilot plant up and running late this year. Next is a plant capable of producing 50 million to 100 million gallons (189 to 379 L) of ethanol a year by 2011.”

GM has a stake in Coskata, but the relationship is not exclusive.

If demand for Coskata ethanol takes off, Clarke admits the industry will need additional players capable of using the technology to produce low-cost cellulosic ethanol. But for now, he says GM is focused intently on the Coskata partnership.

“We have to get this first bet worked out for us,” he says, “and then we’ll see what makes sense.”