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2001 Greater Los Angeles Auto Show

At the Anaheim Auto Show in November 2000, I was surprised by how few alternative-fueled and alternative-powered vehicles were present; there were more at the 2001 Greater Los Angeles Auto Show, held in the L.A. Convention Center on 6-14 January 2001, but the mix was rather different from what I have seen before at this show.

EV1

Of course, the models currently available to the public--the GM EV1 battery-electric and Honda Insight and Toyota Prius hybrid-electric cars--were there; I ran into my old friends Chelsea Sexton and Rob Randall from the EV1 team next to the car in the Saturn area when I visited on Wednesday 10 January 2001, and they confirmed that while there will be no 2001 model of the car, the original (1997) models that have been refurbished and retrofitted with advanced lead-acid batteries are on track to be available for new 2-year leases (at about $349 a month) in a couple of months. The (fleet-focused) Honda Civic GX powered by natural gas was also present; it now comes standard with a continuously-variable transmission (CVT). This transmission will be offered in a few months on the Insight as well (currently it comes with a five-speed manual gearbox), and I understand that Honda plans to offer the Insight's hybrid drivetrain in the Civic within a couple of years.

Ford Escape HEV

The big news was on the hybrid-electric vehicle (HEV) front; this is the Ford Escape HEV, a variant of the company's new small sport-utility vehicle. The Escape HEV will be offered in the 2003 model year, two years after the regular version's debut. In my test-drive report on the Honda Insight, I noted that the most remarkable thing about the vehicle was that its gasoline engine would shut off as you coast to a stop, then restart instantly when you put it back into gear; Ford plans to include this capability in its Explorer SUVs in the future, effectively leveraging HEV technology to improve the fuel economy of a regular vehicle. In this case, it amounts mostly to giving the truck an extra-big starter motor, with a smaller (and cheaper!) battery pack than a full-on HEV in order to recapture energy of motion via regenerative braking and to provide a small boost of extra power on hard acceleration.

Dodge PowerBox

This is a concept vehicle with no production plans announced, the Dodge PowerBox hybrid-electric truck; in addition to the unusual drivetrain, this is also fueled by natural gas rather than gasoline! Hey, why not? Hybrid technology can increase the fuel economy of a natural-gas internal-combustion engine just as it does for a gasoline engine; I wonder if, when Honda offers the Insight's hybrid drivetrain in the Civic, they will also couple it with the Civic GX's natural-gas engine...

TH!NK City and Neighbor

These are some small battery-electric vehicles that will soon be offered by TH!NK, which was bought up by Ford a year or so ago.The TH!NK City in the foreground will be offered in 2002; though it is freeway-capable, its "as-cast" thermoplastic body makes it look too much like a Little Tikes toy for a lot of people, so Bill O'Connor (representing the company when I visited their exhibit) said that it would be redesigned (like the roof of the example on display) with a smoother finish to the ABS plastics that cover its steel-and-aluminum space frame. The TH!NK Neighbor in the background is a low-speed vehicle designed for gated communities, campuses, etc.; it will go on sale in March 2001.

GM Environmental Lab

This is the GM Environmental Lab display, which (with the help of Bill Nye the Science Guy) educates kids and grownups about environmental technologies from cleaner conventional engines to recycled components to alternative fuels. That's a GMC Yukon SUV inside all that gear; GM plans to introduce a hybrid-electric SUV in the 2004 model year, followed by other kinds of cars and trucks.

So why did I say at the top of this report that the mix of alternative-powered vehicles on display was different from previous years? Well, I couldn't find a single LPG (propane) or CNG vehicle except the Civic GX (no bi-fuel pickups, vans, Chevy Cavaliers...), nor any of the several E85 (ethanol) vehicles that are available. At last year's edition of this show I apparently overlooked a hydrogen-powered vehicle in the BMW display area; not wanting to repeat that error, I checked around very carefully, but I don't think I missed anything. A year ago I noted that the theme of the show seemed to be "hybrids are here"; this certainly seems to be the case, with new products and concept vehicles, this year also. Nonetheless, battery-electric vehicles are definitely not down for the count, and the popularity of hybrids should lead to a "trickle-down" effect of reduced prices as batteries, controllers, electric motors, and other components used by both battery-electric and hybrid-electric cars begin to enjoy economies of scale. And, well, if natural-gas and ethanol vehicles have become "mainstream" enough (for fleet users, at least!) that they aren't sufficiently remarkable to take up display space when there are hybrids to show off, I guess that's not a bad problem to have.

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new 16 January 2001