By Miguel Llanos Reporter
msnbc.com

The regulars at this world-class raceway had never seen, heard or smelled anything like it. Used to deafening NASCAR engines and the smell of fuel vapor, they instead heard little and smelled even less as 100 environmentally friendly cars and trucks — from plug-in electrics to hybrids, fuel cell vehicles and even diesels — were put through testing for what was billed as the biggest eco-vehicle gathering ever.

Drive-by noise was actually one of the tests, along with fuel efficiency, exhaust emissions, acceleration, braking, slalom driving and fuel efficiency.

The friendly competition included a David vs. Goliath story — a former U.S. Ski Team racer who spent $5,000 to convert a pickup truck that now runs on hydrogen, natural gas, propane and even gasoline, as well as any combination thereof.

Parked across from where General Motors was offering test drives of its multimillion-dollar Hy-wire fuel cell prototype, Tai Robinson was ready to do battle with GM and any other carmaker — but acknowledged he needs investor support for his conversion system.

The contest, an annual event sponsored by tiremaker Michelin, also brought into focus the fact that the industry is literally and figuratively oceans apart: Japanese carmakers are focusing on gas-electric hybrids, U.S. companies are talking up fuel cell vehicles, and Europeans, well, they’re pushing diesels as the way to go.

Japanese hybrids
Hybrids — vehicles that combine a gasoline engine with an electric motor that doesn’t need to be plugged in — have been an industry topic for nearly a decade now. But the only carmakers with production models are Toyota and Honda.

Their five-passenger hybrid sedans get 45-60 mpg depending on conditions — more than double their gasoline counterparts. That also means a sharp reduction in pollutants and carbon dioxide, a gas many scientists fear is warming the Earth.

Toyota executives at the event delighted in the fact that Ford, its closest U.S. competitor on hybrids, had just announced it was yet again pushing back its first hybrid, a gas-electric Escape SUV that doubles fuel economy to nearly 40 mpg.

Ford had first hoped to sell them by now, then said only fleet customers would get some this year. Those fleet buyers have now been told they’ll have to wait until late next summer.

Toyota, meanwhile, says its Prius hybrids, available in Japan since 1997 and here since 2000, will be profitable within a year.

The redesigned 2004 Prius — rated at 60 mpg in city traffic and 51 mpg in highway driving — will be in U.S. showrooms as of Oct. 17. The vehicle is larger, faster and gets better mileage than earlier models, yet still costs the same: around $20,000.

U.S. fuel cells
While promising hybrids within a few years, U.S. carmakers Ford, DaimlerChrysler and General Motors are spending more time, energy and money promoting vehicles that would replace the internal combustion engine with fuel cells — essentially a battery that stores electricity created when hydrogen mixes with oxygen.

But obstacles include how to get the hydrogen, how to distribute it and how to store enough of it in a vehicle to make it worthwhile.

GM’s vision — embodied in its Hy-wire concept car — was impossible to miss. Of all the vehicles assembled here, the Hy-wire was in most demand by journalists jostling for test drives.

The Hy-wire has no peer: The steering controls are free of any wires and pedals — it’s done all with computers. The futuristic feel takes some getting used to: Your hands, not your feet, do the accelerating and braking via grips on what looks like a pilot’s yoke.

This early prototype also has a limited turning radius and is not something you’d take through a rutted road. In fact, the Hy-wire is so early in the concept stage that it wasn’t put through the environmental testing.

GM says it has spent millions on Hy-wire but won’t get more specific. Some industry observers figure its more in the hundreds of millions.

What GM will say is that it sees the Hy-wire platform, which can drop a variety of bodies onto a standard, simplified chassis, as the future not just here but everywhere.

Whether it’s used as a jitney bus in Asia or a tractor in Africa, said Elizabeth Lowery, GM’s vice president for energy and environment, the Hy-wire can become “the affordable choice in developing countries” as well.

GM’s target for commercial fuel cell vehicles is 2010. That’s the same as Toyota, which has been working on fuel cells even while selling hybrids.

Scott Samuelson, director of the National Fuel Cell Research Center at the University of California, Irvine, called Toyota’s prototype, built into a Highlander SUV platform, “light years ahead” of the competition.

European diesels
In Europe, meanwhile, carmakers like BMW, Mercedes and Volkswagen have found what they feel is an environmental niche: diesel engines.

Only 1 percent of new cars sold here are diesel, but in Europe it’s 44 percent, noted Bernd Bohr, automotive technology director with German diesel giant Robert Bosch.

Diesels get better mileage than gasoline engines, but the key reason for their success in Europe is that governments encourage them by taxing diesel less than gasoline. While diesel is dirtier than gasoline, posing greater health risks, the European Union decided that a more important goal is to reduce carbon dioxide emissions — and diesel trumps gasoline on that front.

Diesel backers also stress that filters are becoming available to trap dangerous particulates.

The health concerns have held back the U.S. market, but a law requiring low-sulfur diesel by 2006 could change the outlook. Indeed, DaimlerChrysler is getting ready, with plans to sell a diesel Jeep Cherokee and Mercedes model next year.

China and beyond
Even before the 2003 event wrapped up, the industry and the tinkerers were already looking forward to next year’s venue: China, the world’s fastest-growing car market.

Some environmentalists suspect carmakers aren’t really committed to cleaner cars and just pay lip service to green technology as a way to appease regulators.

Other observers want to move beyond that debate and note what’s possible with the right carrots and sticks. Joe Norbeck, director of the Center for Environmental Research and Technology at the University of California, Riverside, is one of those.

In California’s case, he told journalists, carmakers were required to drastically lower air pollutants from gasoline engines over a short time. “I never thought it would happen,” he told journalists, and yet now some gasoline models “are essentially electric vehicles in terms of emissions.”

GM, for its part, underscores a goal that’s so ambitious that environmentalists will have an easy time holding it against the carmaker years from now if it’s not met.

That goal, GM’s Lowery told journalists, “is to remove the automobile from the environmental debate.”

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