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2004 Greater Los Angeles Auto Show

It's been awhile since I have seen entirely new alternative-fueled or alternative-powered cars at an auto show, except for concept vehicles or ones in limited demonstration deployments. New offerings to the public have been kind of thin, but with the mainstream success of the Toyota Prius in particular, other automakers are starting to take notice of hybrid-electric vehicles, and several new ones will be out in the next couple of years. Unfortunately, the Los Angeles Auto Show happens at the same time as the Detroit Auto Show each year, so L.A. always loses some debuts to Detroit; however, I saw some interesting new vehicles when I went to the L.A. Auto Show on 7 January 2004.

Cutaway of Toyota Prius

The Prius, substantially revised and improved for 2004, was recently named Motor Trend's Car of the Year; in the Toyota area there were a couple of them on prominent display, including one emblazoned with that and some of the other awards the car has won. They also had this cutaway, showing the flow of power to and from the battery, gasoline engine, and electric motor.

Lexus RX 400h

Building on the success of the Prius, in 2005 Toyota will be introducing a hybrid version of their Highlander SUV; I didn't see that here, but in the Lexus area I did find this 2005 RX 400h hybrid, which is based on the same platform. The vehicle looks very similar to the conventional Lexus RX 330 SUV; the people there told me that it has the same 3.3-liter V6 as that vehicle (whence "330"), but coupled with the hybrid components it gives the performance of a 4.0-liter V8 (whence "400h") while getting modestly better fuel economy.

Chevrolet hybrid pickup bed

Way in the back of the Chevrolet exhibit, I found the hybrid Silverado pickup. I didn't see any external badging at all to differentiate it from an ordinary truck, just the two 110-volt outlets in the bed (and two more inside the cab), so it was even harder to identify as a hybrid than the RX 400h! Like that vehicle, the hybrid Silverado has the same engine as the ordinary truck (a 5.3-liter V8), which with the added hybrid components gives more power (plus the electrical outlets) and somewhat better fuel economy. This is in contrast to the Prius and upcoming Ford Escape hybrid (not present at this show), which use the extra power from the hybrid componentry to enable a smaller-than-conventional engine to get comparable power with much greater fuel economy. I understand that, like the relative lack of external identifiers (compare this to the swoopy modernistic body of the Prius or Honda Insight), this is a move on the part of the automakers to make hybrids more "mainstream," since extreme fuel economy is not (yet!) on the radar screens of a lot of car and truck buyers. The hybrid Chevrolet and GMC pickup trucks will be available to fleets later this year, and to consumers in the 2005 model year.

Honda FCX, Insight, and Civics

Over in the Honda area, the natural-gas-powered Civic GX, the hybrid Civic and Insight, and the fuel-cell FCX (foreground) were arranged together in front of a sign describing them, as I have often seen at recent auto shows. I understand Honda will be introducing a hybrid version of its larger Accord for 2005, but that was not present here.

DaimlerChrysler F-Cell

Other fuel-cell vehicles (FCVs) present included the Ford Focus FCV that I've seen at a few other shows and events, and this F-Cell from DaimlerChrysler, based on the European Mercedes-Benz A series subcompact.

F-Cell cutaway

The other side of the F-Cell was cut away to show how the entire drivetran and fuel tanks fit under the floor, a nice feat of packaging in this small car.

GM Hy-wire

Another impressive job of packaging a fuel-cell drivetrain was on display in the GM corporate area. The Hy-wire showed how the hydrogen-fueled (whence "Hy") powertrain could be laid out in a flat "skateboard," while a "drive-by-wire" (whence "-wire") system of controls, with electronics replacing hydraulic and mechanical connections, enables a body of any shape and layout to be "docked" with the skateboard. Note the glass going all the way to the nose, and the fore-and-aft facing seats; less readily visible is the airplane-style yoke replacing the steering wheel and pedals. This would be a bit too radical a departure from people's ingrained driving habits, perhaps, but it illustrates the flexibility inherent in an electronic drivetrain.

GEM sign

Regrettably, with the dissipation of California's push for battery-electric vehicles (EVs), there were none on display from the major automakers. Usually Global Electric Motorcars (a division of DaimlerChrysler) has a few vehicles on the floor, but the only trace of them at this show was this sign, sharing space with an ad for their certified used vehicle program.

Tango two-seater

I did find a couple of interesting things interspersed with the fancy wheels and overamped sound systems in the "custom and specialty" hall, though! This is the Tango, from Commuter Cars; the name of the company suggests that this is a boring sub-econo-box, but this little beast has one powerful electric motor on each rear wheel and 300 volts of battery pack, so it can blow from zero to 60 MPH in about four seconds, or run a 12-second quarter mile! This is a model that they hope to put into production, with initial vehicles being sold as kit cars (about 8 hours of assembly required) and later models coming fully assembled (and at a lower price) once they have done the required engineering and tests to get it certified to automaker safety standards. The vehicle has two seats, one behind the other ("two to Tango," I guess?), and it is a few inches narrower than the handlebars of a typical touring motorcycle so it can "split lanes" in traffic.

Intergalactic Hydrogen display

Finally, this is the display of conversion shop Intergalactic Hydrogen; they also shared their space with NuEnergy, a dealer in electric scooters (including eGO Cycles like mine). The trucks you see are "American Fuel Vehicles," each of which can run on up to four fuels (for example, diesel, biodiesel, natural gas, and hydrogen). The rear of each is pretty full with fuel tanks, but ranges are phenomenal; some of these have driven cross-country on hydrogen, which is hard to do even with support vehicles carrying your fuel. They're bidding on California Governor Schwarzenegger's promised conversion of (one of) his Hummers to burn hydrogen; we'll see how much he drives it, as refueling stations will be few and far between until his promised program to put them every couple of dozen miles along major California freeways. Lots of promises about hydrogen, from him, the Federal government, and automakers; we'll have to keep the heat on them all to ensure that they don't bury FCVs and other hydrogen vehicles as they have EVs.

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new 12 January 2004