Image: Bulle urban car
Businessweek Online
A popcorn popper or legitimate transportation? One thing is for sure: The Bulle urban car makes an impression.
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updated 6/22/2006 3:52:43 PM ET 2006-06-22T19:52:43

This year, Paris played host to the eighth annual Michelin Challenge Bibendum, a gathering of auto manufacturers, researchers, inventors, and free thinkers from all over the globe to explore the idea of "Sustainable Mobility." In other words, how can humans transport themselves in an earth-friendly fashion as the oil supply slows to a trickle?

But as I was standing on the Champ de Mars in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, the most important thing on my mind was finding a way to escape the sweltering June heat. Appropriately enough, help arrived in the form of an air-conditioned Saturn VUE hybrid that was being displayed at the Challenge.

I introduced myself to the driver, Steven Tarnowsky, who it turns out is the assistant chief engineer for Saturn's Green Line hybrid VUE. Within minutes I was cooling off in the front seat as I agreed to accompany Tarnowsky on the 60 kilometer (38 mile) drive to the CERAM (Montefontaine Automobile Test & Research Center) test track. Thankfully, he did turn-by-turn navigation during the leg of the rally. By the way, the 2007 Green Line gets 30 miles per gallon plus on the highway and costs about $23,000, making it the least expensive, highest-mileage, compact hybrid SUV.

However, because of heavy Parisian traffic, what should have taken only one hour dragged into two. I had plenty of time to think about the vehicles and trends I had observed over the past two days of the Challenge Bibendum. It's impossible to predict what we will be driving in the future, perhaps it will be a hybrid, a clean diesel, a fuel cell, or something we have yet to discover. One thing is for certain, though, the next 10 years to 15 years will change what we drive more dramatically than anything we have experienced during the past 50 years of automotive history.

Currently, green-thinking motorists and celebrities in the U.S. market tend toward gas/electric hybrids. They would not have been disappointed by the technology at this year's event. Citroën, Ford, and others showed mild- or micro-hybrids that use start/stop engine technology to shut down at stop lights. It is a less expensive solution to reducing emissions and fuel consumption.

Owning a factory-built Toyota Prius may no longer make you the greenest person on your block unless it is equipped with a PHEV (Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicle) kit. For about $10,000, Amberjac Projects, a Lincolnshire company, will trick out your Prius by adding a larger, higher-technology battery and a power connector that allows you to plug the Toyota to your home's electrical source. The idea is the nine-hour recharge time will take place during the evening hours using reduced-rate power.

The results produce 130 mpg compared with 50 mpg for the stock model, and most of our time on the road course was spent in the 100-mpg-plus range. You can also travel 35 miles on full electric power, so on some local errand runs your gas engine may never start. Plans for the Lexus RX400h are under way, with the Lexus GS450h and the Ford Escape hybrid to soon follow. While it will take some time to financially recoup the additional $10,000 — on top of the Prius purchase price (which has an MSRP in the U.S. of $21,725) — the Amberjac conversion may be the ultimate environmental feel-good option.

Multifueled cars made up a big part of the Challenge Bibendum rally fleet. Many manufacturers exhibited E85 and natural gas-powered cars; there was even a compressed natural gas garbage truck. Volvo showed its Multi-Fuel V70 wagon that can burn up to five different fuels including Hythane. For the uninitiated, that's 10 percent hydrogen and 90 percent methane. (To learn more about Volvo's concept, click here.) Hmm, bet that smells special!

I also had a chance to sample the CNG/gas For-Two Smart car; all you have to do is flip a console-mounted switch to go between the two fuel sources. And yes, I did ask the Smart engineers if the U.S. market would see those diminutive cars that are so popular in Europe. The answer was the standard "We'll let you know in a few months."

Diesels rule the road in Europe, and I had the chance to sample several, including the 1.6-liter diesel Volvo S40. The miniscule engine had plenty of power on the track, even with two rather large journalists acting as ballast in the backseat. With no idle clatter and an advanced particulate trap, this 50-mpg vehicle would be perfect for the U.S. market. Will it happen? We will have to wait and see on this, as well.

Hybrid and diesel technology teamed up in Peugeot's HDi hybrid that used an engine start/stop system to cut emissions and an electric-power Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV) mode that can be activated by a dash-mounted switch.

It's interesting my interview with Peugeot's Jean-Francois Huere focused mainly on emission reduction, which seems to be the emphasis in the European market over fuel economy. For the record, the estimates for the 307 diesel hybrid are in the 70-mpg-plus range. The problem: Both diesel and hybrid technology add big to the price tag, so Peugeot is shooting to reduce costs and field the vehicle sometime in 2010.

By the way, Peugeot has some of the most attractive sheet metal cruising the highways of France these days. Is it time for them to return to the U.S. market?

Are you an early hydrogen-highway adopter? DaimlerChrysler had a fleet of their hydrogen-powered F Cell fuel-cell vehicles. Based on the production version of the Mercedes A Class, these vehicles made hot laps around the CERAM test track on two sweltering days without incident. Two days on a race track with journalists behind the wheel, that's an acid test for sure, and goes a long way to prove just how well automotive fuel-cell technology works. Now if you could only find a hydrogen filling station when you need it.

Besides the F Cell, I also spent time behind the wheel of General Motors' Hydrogen 3 fuel cell. This one was covered with Ikea logos since it's seeing use as a delivery truck when it's not taking part in rallies.

And then there were some outer-fringe sustainable-mobility ideas, including a trio of electric cars from French couturier Courrèges: the ZOOOP with its yellow passenger dome, the EXE that was mostly a bit of exposed frame work, and—my favorite—the Bulle urban car concept, which had the look of a large industrial popcorn popper. They all showed what happens when a designer's mind is allowed to roam freely.

Most all of the vehicles that took part in Michelin's Challenge Bibendum are possible forms of sustainable mobility. But the only thing certain about the future of automotive travel is that we will be driving something that is radically different from the big-displacement, fossil fuel-burning behemoths of today.

My only hope is they will have air conditioning at least as good as Saturn's Green Line hybrid. Especially if I am driving on a hot June weekend in Paris.

To see the cars and technologies that were the highlights of the Michelin Challenge Bibendum, click here.

Copyright © 2012 Bloomberg L.P. All rights reserved.

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