If batteries aren’t yet up to the task of electrifying the family beater, why not shrink the beater? French automaker PSA Peugeot Citroën kicked off the Geneva Motor Show this morning announcing it was joining an accelerating embrace of this logic. The Paris-based manufacturer revealed this morning that it is pursuing a deal with Mitsubishi Motor to develop a compact Peugeot for sale in Europe next year based on Mitsubishi’s i-MiEV, the 100-mile-range commuter car Mitsubishi plans to roll out in Japan this summer.
Many in the green car movement are cheering the announcement that Bob Lutz, GM’s vice chairman, will retire at the end of 2009. Environmental Defense Fund automotive guru John DeCicco celebrates the news on HybridCars.com today, calling Lutz part of a “cohort of corporate leaders who rose to the top eerily disconnected from the parallel rise of environmental values in American culture.” But a speech last week by Hyundai North America’s CEO — billed as a wake-up call by the Detroit News — reinforces the impression that changing the industry’s environmental perspective will require a much broader shift in personnel.
Lutz earned the ire of the environmentally-inclined for two reasons. As product development chief he contributed to GM’s reliance on ever larger and less fuel-efficient SUVs trucks. And he made headlines with his contempt for the theory of climate change. Dallas-based D Magazine quoted a private conversation with journalists just one year ago in which Lutz called global warming a, “total crock of ****.”
Lutz added, according to D, that, “my opinion doesn’t matter.” But how could that be, with GM gearing up to woo environmentally-minded consumers with advanced vehicles such as the plug-in hybrid Chevy Volt? Such comments reverberate louder still within the industry, signaling to junior engineers that an environment-be-damned ethic endures in Detroit’s board rooms.
Plugs are definitely vogue at this week’s Mondial de l’Automobile in Paris. So where does the hybrid vehicle fit into the picture? It may not, according to Renault. The French carmaker says that electric vehicles, not hybrids, are needed to deliver the emissions reductions that governments and customers demand.
And Renault is not the only major automaker planning to produce commuter-oriented EVs. Mitsubishi Motors and Daimler both announced plans in Paris last week to accelerate commercialization of small EVs — Mitsubishi with its i-MiEV minicar and Daimler with a battery version of its popular Smart Fortwo. Volkswagen’s promo materials in Paris confirmed it would join the EV club, producing a tiny commuter EV called the Up! in 2010 with a top speed of 130 kilometers/hour and roughly 100 kms of range.
Ok you say. EV’s are à la mode. But what of the hybrid option? The question is partly semantic. Hybrid technology is everywhere if you count the mild hybrids, which employ a small but potent electric battery to save gas by rebooting the combustion engine on a green light instead of idling through the red; some can also recuperate energy during breaking by recharging their battery. This technology is going mainstream: Renault competitor PSA Peugeot Citroën said it alone will install 1 million stop-start systems by 2011. VW spokesperson Martin Hube said his company viewed stop-start as just an evolution of internal combustion drive. “You can call it a mild hybrid but it’s just a smart technique,” says Hube. “That’s nothing new.”
No automaker questions whether full hybrids like the Prius or GM’s plug-in Chevy Volt that can drive on either electricity or gasoline are something new. But while several showed full hybrid concept cars in Paris, fewer talked up plans to build one. Perhaps they’ve made the same calculation as Renault: it’s not worth the trouble to cram high-energy motors, batteries and an engine into a vehicle when one can go straight to the full EV instead.