Image: A Ford C-max Energi hybrid car
MARK BLINCH  /  Reuters
Ford’s exhibit at the Detroit auto show features a plug-in version of its new C-Max microvan, dubbed the Energi.
Image: Paul A. Eisenstein, msnbc.com contributor
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 1/12/2011 8:37:35 AM ET 2011-01-12T13:37:35

Throw a rock anywhere at the Detroit auto show and you're sure to hit an electric car: from the $24,000 battery-powered sedan made by China's BYD to the projected $400,000 SLS E-Cell supercar from Mercedes-Benz.

Yet despite the widening support for electric propulsion, auto executives are cautioning that “battery power is not for everyone,” as Nissan’s chief U.S. executive Carlos Tavares said.

Certainly electric propulsion has created the most buzz at this year’s Detroit show, formally known as the North American International Auto Show.

General Motors’ plug-in Chevrolet Volt took top honors as Car of the Year at the show, and GM CEO Dan Akerson announced plans for an additional multipurpose vehicle using the Volt’s underlying technology likely to come to market in 2012 or 2013. Nissan is planning to offer a series of battery-powered cars following the launch of its Leaf sedan late last year.

Yet underlying the surge of new electric models into the marketplace is a fear among industry executives that the technology may fall short of expectations. So they’re hedging their bets, investing into a wide range of other options including diesel, compressed natural gas and even hydrogen that could increase the appeal of alternative power.

There is no question that battery power is gaining traction – in all of its various flavors. Until recently, GM seemed wedded to the Volt system, which relies on battery power to handle the daily commute and an auxiliary internal combustion engine for longer drives. Now, said Akerson, the maker will embrace everything from conventional hybrids to full battery-electric vehicles.

Life Inc.: Not charged up about electric cars

Ford’s exhibit at the show in the cavernous Cobo Hall features its first battery-electric model, the Focus Electric, as well as a plug-in version of its new C-Max microvan, dubbed the Energi. But Ford is also looking at what might be called “battery light” technology, such as the Stop/Start system it will offer on the Focus in Europe.

This technology automatically shuts the engine while idling, then powers back up when the driver’s foot lifts off the brake. Ford estimates the technology can reduce fuel consumption by as much as 10 percent and plans to offer it on 20 percent of its worldwide products by 2014. Some industry experts predict that by the end of the decade Stop/Start could become as common as electronic stability control is today.

Considering the various forms of “electrification,” it could be difficult to find a car on the market that won’t, in a decade or so, use some form of battery technology. That will be all the more likely, industry officials say, if the Environmental Protection Agency moves ahead on a proposal to raise the corporate average fuel economy, or CAFE, standard to 62 miles per gallon by 2025 from 35.5 mpg as of 2016.

But exactly how much of the market will convert to more advanced systems, especially plug-ins and pure battery-electric vehicles, is a subject of fierce debate. “It depends on a variety of factors,” including fuel costs, government regulations, subsidies, technical advances and especially customer acceptance, said Ford’s global product development chief, Derrick Kuzak.

The outlook is fuzzy enough that Ford’s internal projections call for electrified vehicles – including traditional hybrids, plug-ins and BEVs – to reach anywhere from 10 to 25 percent of the market by 2025.

So while virtually all major carmakers are developing battery cars, there are plenty who are exploring other options.

Honda officials, for example, are playing up their efforts with compressed natural gas, which so far has found only limited acceptance, mostly among fleets like taxi operators who are under pressure to both reduce emissions and curb fuel costs.

Diesel is a particular focus of European makers, and no surprise. Back home, it accounts for roughly half the market.

Such so-called “oil burners” slipped from favor among Americans in the 1980s due to problems that have largely been resolved today, such as sluggishness and the smell of diesel exhaust, but there are signs of a renewed interest domestically. Ernst Lieb, CEO of the U.S. Mercedes-Benz subsidiary, notes that “demand is rising” for diesel, with the diesel-powered version of the ML sport-utility vehicle now accounting for 30 percent of the product’s American volume.

Mercedes officials point out that the new “clean diesel” version of their flagship S-Class, the S350, will deliver better mileage than the hybrid S400. The company has been working on pairing diesel with a hybrid-electric system, a costly solution that could prove practical if, as some expect, gas rises to $5 a gallon.

Story: GM’s Chevy Volt named 2011 Car of the Year

Mercedes is shooting at as many alternative energy targets as it can hit. The maker not only introduced the battery-power SLS AMG E-Cell supercar in Detroit but also is reminding showgoers that it is fleet testing a hydrogen-powered version of its small B-Class model in California.

Hydrogen fuel cells seemed to be the wave of future just a decade ago but have lost momentum as the spotlight has shifted to electric propulsion. It didn’t help when the Obama administration decided to shift financial support away from hydrogen technology to the development of advanced batteries.

If anything, that shift has reminded industry leaders that it can be risky to focus on any single technology. Unexpected technical problems can set in, and as battery makers are well aware, it can be difficult to win over customers. So, if the Detroit show is any indication, we’ll be seeing both more battery cars – and plenty of other options – on display for the foreseeable future.

© 2013 msnbc.com.  Reprints

Photos: Production models

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  1. Volvo’s C30 electric crash test display is shown during the media preview of the 2011 North American International Auto Show at the Cobo Arena in Detroit. Volvo is hoping to burnish its reputation for car safety at the event, which features over 30 debuts of vehicles made by automakers from around the world. The show is open to the public from January 15 to 23. (Paul Sancya / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A model poses in front of an Audi A7 during the media previewfor the show. (Mark Blinch / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. The 2011 Jeep Compass is unveiled. Chrysler Jeep is celebrating its 70th year in 2011. (Mark Blinch / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. A Chevrolet Corvette, right, and a 2011 Corvette ZR1 sit on display. (Kamil Krzaczynski / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. The 2011 Ford Explorer, winner of the 2011 North American Truck of the Year award, on display at the 2011 North American International Auto Show. (Rebecca Cook / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Volvo’s Electric C30 car is powered by a lithium-ion battery and can be charged from a household power socket. (Stan Honda / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Venturi’s high-voltage buggy concept includes a 300-horsepower engine. (Paul Sancya / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. The new Dodge Ram 3500 truck is equipped with a powerful 350-horsepower engine. (Stan Honda / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. The 2011 Camaro RS convertible. (Rebecca Cook / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. A model poses next to a Dodge Charger Hemi. (Tannen Maury / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. The 2011 Dodge Challenger SRT8 392. (Rebecca Cook / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. The new Chevrolet Sonic small car will go into production later this year for the 2012 model year. (Stan Honda / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Porsche returns to the 2011 North American International Auto Show with the Cayman R sports car. (Paul Sancya / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. The new Bentley Continental GT will launch from standstill to 60mph in just 4.6 seconds and has a top speed of 197 mph. (Stan Honda / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Toyota Executive Bob Carter introduces the Prius V midsize hybrid-electric vehicle, left, and the Prius C concept, right. (Paul Sancya / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Ford's Mark Fields introduces the Ford C-MAX electric vehicle. (Tannen Maury / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Dr. Martin Winterkorn, Chairman of Volkswagen Management Group, introduces the new Volkswagen Passat. (Bill Pugliano / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. The Porsche 918 RSR sports car Has a V8 engine that delivers 563 horsepower and can jump to 767 horsepower with the push of a button. (Friso Gentsch / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Audi introduces the new A6 Hybrid. (Scott Olson / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. A model poses next to the Ferrari 458 Italia. (Kamil Krzaczynski / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. The BMW 650i convertible is unveiled. (Mark Blinch / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. The Mercedes Benz SLS AMG E-Cell has four electric motors (one for each wheel) and can accelerate to 60 mph in 4 seconds. (Paul Sancya / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Ford’s President and CEO Alan Mulally presents the Ford Focus ST. (Tannen Maury / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Ford’s Executive Chairman Bill Ford introduces Ford’s electric lineup: (Left to right) the C-MAX electric car, the Transit Connect electric truck, the Focus electric car and the C-MAX hybrid. (Stan Honda / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. The interior of the Buick Verano, GM’s first upscale compact car for a luxury brand, is shown. The Verano is GM’s only new model to debut at the event. (Geoff Robins / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. The Chrysler 300, once a hot-selling sedan, is redesigned with a sleeker look. (Tony Ding / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Tom Stephens, vice chairman of General Motors, holds up the 2011 North American International Auto Show Car of the Year trophy, which this year was awarded to the Chevrolet Volt. (Paul Sancya / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Two of the new Mercedes Benz C Class vehicles are shown at a Mercedes Benz event the night before the official start of the media preview event. (Bill Pugliano / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. Michael Price cleans a Cadillac CTS-V coupe race car on the show floor. (Rebecca Cook / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. Image:
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    Above: Slideshow (29) On the catwalk in Detroit - Production models
  2. Image: GMC Sierra All Terrain HD Concept
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    Slideshow (12) On the catwalk in Detroit - Concept cars

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