DETROIT – Would the Detroit Electric vehicle, circa 1910, fit in here at the 2010 North American International Auto Show’s new EV exhibit, dubbed Electric Avenue?
Maybe. The antique certainly is a reminder – as showgoers check out the likes of the newLeaf and BYD microcars – that battery-powered vehicles go way back.
“It’s kind of back to the future,” says dealer Barron Meade, co-chairman of the Detroit show.
But what is the future of modern EVs? Backers see a bright one. Detractors wonder who, beyond the “green” set, will buy such vehicles?
“This is where you are seeing the start of EVs,” says Meade walking along the 30,000 sq.-ft (2,787 m) EV exhibit. “But it all falls on battery technology and the need for an infrastructure to charge the vehicles.”
It also has much to do with consumer buying behavior that can be cautious when it comes to dramatically new technology, says David Champion, director of automotive testing for Consumer Reports.
“We’ll see a gradual introduction of green vehicles that early adaptors will like,” he says from the floor show. “The prospects of later adaptors? It will depend on how it benefits their wallets. It usually comes down to that.”
And, he notes, EVs also will face tough competition from tried-and-true internal combustion engines. Those have seen more than a century of advancements and billions of dollars in research-and-development investments over that time.
“The modern internal combustion engine is a magic of science,” Champion says. “It performs exceptionally, whether in the blistering heat of Death Valley or the bitter cold of Alaska.”
So even though EVs get their own corner exhibit at the Detroit show this year, vehicles with gasoline engines – and an occasional diesel powertrain – are displayed just about everywhere else.
Champion is impressed with the show’s additional emphasis on smaller, fuel-efficient cars. They are not your father’s econoboxes.
“Cars such as theFocus, Golf and Fit are premium small vehicles that have grown up and offer refined driving experiences,” he says.
But, he adds, they will cost more than their predecessors.
The Detroit show is different this year, and not just because a bunch of electric cars have worked their way onto the main floor.
The mood is more upbeat compared with last year’s event, when the industry was in trouble, particularly two hometown teams.
“Last year, the sky was falling in on us,” says show co-chairman Doug Fox.
In 2009, auto makers on the brink, notablyCo. and Group LLC, scaled back their exhibits. They thought it unwise to seek government financial bailouts in December, and then go wild at the show a month later.
Other hard-hit auto companies, such asNorth America Inc., pulled out last year altogether. “We had 60,000 sq. ft. (5,574 m) right in the middle of the hall dumped in our lap from that decision on Thanksgiving weekend,” recalls Fox, a Nissan dealer.
This year, Nissan is back, sort of, with its first auto-show exhibit of the ballyhooed Leaf.
After an austere presence in 2009, GM has returned to featuring a double-decker display, but still not one that’s too over the top.
, now teamed with Auto SpA, has an impressive exhibit that Fox calls “Euro chic.”
Besides Chrysler-brand vehicles, the display includes offerings fromas well as Lancia, Maserati and Ferrari – other nameplates under the Italian auto maker’s expanding umbrella.
“Sergio (Marchionne, Chrysler’s new CEO,) may say he doesn’t like auto shows, but he has made a heck of a statement here,” Fox says.
A Dodge truck hanging upside down from an elevated beam attracts the attention of Mark Schienberg, president of the Greater New York Auto Dealers Assn.
“It kind of reminds you of the days when Chrysler had splashy unveilings, such as a car crashing through glass,” he says.
Nothing like that this year. But hope is in the brisk wintry air of the Motor City.
“Last year was muted,” Meade, a Lexus dealer, says. “It was a time to be serious, to reevaluate plans and try to figure out where the industry was going.
“This year, a lot of questions have been answered, such as whether major auto manufacturers can survive a bankruptcy,” he says. “Now we know the answer is, ‘Yes.’”
Incidentally, although the original Detroit Electric ended production in 1939, a U.K. firm called Detroit Electric Holdings Co. Ltd. is in the EV business today.
“But they chose not to be with us here,” Meade says.