For an EcoGeek, there were many surprises at the 2017 edition of the North American International Auto Show (NAIAS). We’ve been watching the emphasis on green cars decline for a number of years. Some of that is in the mainstreaming of more efficient vehicles, with increased fuel efficiency standards, greater numbers of hybrid vehicles, and alternative fuels. But nothing brought home how far things have come quite so much as this year’s show.
Last year, we thought, “the days of green cars being featured at the North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) seem to be over.” Where the “green” cars were once a niche item that were typically highlighted with special displays. This year, green is so mainstream that the 2017 Green Car of the Year is also the North American Car of the Year for 2017. Those awards, along with Motor Trend Car of the Year, all went to the Chevrolet Bolt.
And there are many companies with multiple electric drive vehicles. Toyota, Ford, GM, and BMW each have a variety of options available. Some are all electric drive. Some are gas/electric hybrids. Some are smaller, shorter range commuter cars, while others are readily capable of long range trips. It is no longer the case that, if you want an electric drive vehicle, your selection is limited to the one model that a company offers. There are choices, and not just between this manufacturer or that one, but a variety within a company. Even Fiat Chrysler, which has in past years seemingly paid no attention whatsoever to eco-mindedness, has a hybrid Pacifica minivan, which offers an 83 MPGe rating.
At this point, it seems that the automotive manufacturers don’t feel a strong need to keep pushing the market to accept electric vehicles or to get them to understand the benefits. That has been established with consumers, and it is now a matter of finding the right vehicles to meet the demand that they have fostered.
What is exciting for us as EcoGeeks is that the pursuit of transformative technology continues. The lower level of the show has been an unpredictable sideline to the main floor show. In some years it has been almost like a ghost town. In others, it has offered a driving track with sometimes many different vehicles available to test drive. This year, the lower level was packed with dozens of different booths ranging from second-tier manufacturers (who make components and systems for the automakers), autonomous vehicle technologies, two different folding electric scooters, university racing and design programs, and a row full of developers of automotive- and transportation-related apps and services.
As has been the case in previous years, hydrogen-fueled vehicles caught our eye as the next wave to watch in the transformation of the market. The joke about hydrogen fueled vehicles has long been that “Hydrogen powered vehicles are always 20 years in the future.” But now, after several years, that 20 years is starting to feel like it might be inching a bit closer. Where electric vehicles were a decade ago, hydrogen vehicles are today. They are something that some companies are dedicating some of their floor space to displaying. Toyota and Honda both have available hydrogen vehicles on display, and are selling hydrogen vehicles to consumers. In addition, GM, in conjunction with the US Army, has a fuel cell powered Colorado variant on display on the lower level as an investigational next-generation HMMV replacement which is slated for field trials later this year. Completely unrelated to attending the auto show, but perhaps a telling sign, while driving home on the highway on Sunday night, I passed a tanker truck carrying a load of liquid hydrogen. Perhaps it’s the shape of things to come.