The world's biggest auto show has begun in Detroit, with a renewed sense of optimism among carmakers after a tough 12 months. German manufacturers are present with a strong emphasis on hybrid and electric designs.
German carmakers like BMW will have their latest models on show
Fuel efficiency and reducing emissions are the two key themes at this year's Detroit auto show, with carmakers from around the world displaying their latest hybrid and electric prototypes for all to see.
This year's show takes place with the backdrop of a global auto industry trying to find its feet again after a difficult 12 months.
Automakers are still reeling from a collapse in sales to levels not seen since 1983, bankrupting General Motors and Chrysler and dethroning the "Detroit Three" as the biggest sellers in the US market. Last year also saw China overtake the US as the world's largest car market.
New tack in design
Ford, GM, Toyota and Honda kicked off this year's show by highlighting their focus on fuel-efficient vehicles. German carmakers too have come to Detroit with a whole new range of fuel-based, hybrid and electric vehicles and prototypes.
Stuttgart-based Mercedes says it has installed new propulsion technology in its Smart and B-Class models, and is planning a reduced-emissions model for its A-Class, with a view to a future with hybrid cars.
The first two days of the show are open exclusively to the media
Mercedes board member Thomas Weber says the company hopes innovations like this will help Mercedes' share of the North American market grow 10 percent in 2010.
"It will happen slowly, but I estimate the chances of this new propulsion technology are enormous, particularly in urbanized regions around the world where it's a matter of reducing noise and emissions. We are well prepared for this," Weber said.
Industry turning to electricity
At fellow German carmaker Audi, the belief is also that electricity-based vehicles are the way to go. The Bavarian firm says it will be introducing its sporty new E-tron model at the Detroit show. Another Bavarian auto giant, BMW, also plans to go electric with the unveiling of a prototype "plug-in" electric car in Detroit.
Within the next year, BMW says it will begin testing small numbers of the vehicle, referred to as Concept ActiveE, which is a plug-in electric four-seat coupe cast in the design of a typical BMW.
"From what I can see, by 2020 we'll see three different types of car propulsion systems, not only one," said Klaus Draeger, who heads development at BMW. "There will be conventional combustion engines, there will be hybrid vehicles and thirdly there will be electric vehicles. Electric vehicles would be very much limited to urban settings."
The Concept ActiveE will begin testing this year
There are fears however that electric vehicles won't be able to transport people over long enough distances, and that this could deter potential customers. The Concept ActiveE will only have enough power in its batteries for around 160 kilometers (100 miles), but Draeger said this was enough for many people.
"We have already accumulated a lot of experience with our 600 MINI-E test fleet, and we found that our customers are exceedingly contented with a range of 100 miles," he said.
Customers will also have to pay more for electric cars than current fuel-based models.
"Today it is clear that electric cars will have considerable surcharges attached to them on account of their battery. And therefore state support would probably be unavoidable at least for the initial years of electric vehicles," Draeger added.
Many auto makers are still holding out hopes of receiving some kind of state support for investing in electric technologies. But until then, most car companies will likely try to keep the public's focus on their current petrol-based models during this year's Detroit auto show.
The motor fair opens to the public January 16.
Author: Darren Mara
Editor: Michael Lawton