Call it the split personality of the North American International Auto Show — speed and performance are pushed in vehicles like the new Dodge Charger (with the blessing of racing legend Richard Petty), while equally important this year is the need to be clean and green. BMW is touting the speed records of its futuristic car with a hydrogen internal combustion engine and what it could mean for drivers off the race track.
Ford CEO Bill Ford Jr. gave NBC News a test ride in his new hydrogen-powered bus.
“Using this technology you can run the engine on gasoline,” says Ford. “Press a button and run it on hydrogen.”
Ford says he was pushing for alternative fuels back when others in the industry scoffed.
“What's changed? It's interesting. I've been talking about this for some time and people thought I was a Bolshevik for doing so,” says Ford. “And it has come now full circle. It kind of makes me laugh because companies now are trying to prove who's greenest.”
That’s in part because customers and car buffs are applauding.
The Ford Escape Hybrid was named this show's North American truck of the year, a year after Toyota's red-hot Prius won car of the year.
Ford plans to build 20,000 SUVs with gas and electric engines, but customers want more.
“There is tremendous demand,” says Ford. “The limiting factor so far is the availability of batteries, but we are working through that.”
Four more hybrids will come from Ford over the next three years and General Motors will offer the cleaner technology on popular vehicles that use the most gas. GM's endgame is a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle called the Sequel. But, in the hybrid race, critics say Detroit lags behind Toyota and Honda. Japan is already leaping into the luxury market with a hybrid SUV from Lexus.
But American automakers insist the contest has just begun.
“If this is going to be a big game, we're in the first three minutes of the first quarter of the football game,” says General Motors CEO Rick Waggoner. “So this is going to play out over a long period of time.”
In that time, companies will continue to search for the right combination of technologies to produce the speed and power of the future.