What to make of the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, from which I've just returned?
The event -- the world's largest auto show -- fills every nook and cranny of the COBO Center's 2.4 million square feet of exhibition space. It's a car lover's dream -- the latest and shiniest new models and concept cars, up close and personal, the scene augmented by testosterone-pounding music and flashing lights. Attractive women stand vapidly around sporty and luxury models, just in case the vehicles themselves aren't titillating enough.
But where was the green? This year, environmentally minded vehicles and innovations seemed few and far between. The well-choreographed and elaborately staged press events focused far more on horsepower and high-technology than on hybrids and hydrogen. "Muscle" was probably the show's most exercised buzzword.
Consider, for example, Toyota, the automotive darling of the eco-crowd. At the company's exhibit last year, it was all about hybrids. This year, Toyota had its three hybrid models on display -- the Camry, Highlander, and iconic Prius -- but they were pushed off to the side, all but lost in the gridlock of more than a dozen sizeable trucks being showcased. Toyota's press extravaganza this year was devoted entirely to its massive, 2007 Tundra pick-up -- "The truck that changes it all" -- which tips the scales at up to 7,200 pounds (equivalent to about two and a half Priuses). The macho machine, we were told, is based on Toyota's "uncanny awareness for the wants and needs of American consumers."
So, have Toyota and the other automakers lost their appetite for the green market?
Hardly. It turns out that green is going mainstream in the sense that it has become so common as to be unworthy, or at least less-worthy, of news, let alone hype. While green vehicles and messaging weren't front and center, they were present in nearly every company's line-up of new and forthcoming vehicles. It just took a little digging to find -- and was often underwhelming once you found it.
Everyone, it seemed, had an environmental story to tell -- a new hybrid, flex-fuel vehicle, fuel-efficient compact, or gas-sipping technology enhancement. But these were largely washed aside by a tsunami of macho trucks, high-horsepower upgrades of bestselling sedans, and midsized "crossover" vehicles -- the SUV-family car combo that has become the industry's fastest-growing vehicle class. With the exception of GM, no other car company staged a press event dedicated to green innovations.
Indeed, it turns out that for the majority of vehicle manufacturers, the greening of vehicles is far more evolution than revolution, a steady stream of incremental changes. Ford technology spokesman Said Deep regaled me with a litany of improvements his company was making: direct-injection fueling technology and six-speed transmissions that allow engines to be downsized and more fuel-efficient while maintaining or enhancing their power; low-rolling-resistance tires that can help squeeze out an extra few miles per gallon; LED headlights and taillights that draw less power. He could have been speaking for Toyota, Chrysler, GM, or any number of other car companies. All appear to be making such improvements as a matter of course.
Some of the more interesting green innovations could be found in vehicle interiors. A couple examples:
All good stuff, of course, but I was desperately seeking something bold and disruptive -- some breakthrough vehicle that combined mind-boggling fuel efficiency, near-zero emissions, innovative green materials, and sexy styling. GM's Volt and Ford's fantastical Airstream fuel cell car (pictured above) came closest, but both are concept cars, unavailable for purchase. I'm talking about something that I can drive later this year (when the lease runs out on my BMW convertible).
So, to repeat: what to make of the Detroit show? Is the tank half full or half empty? Should we be pleased with the incremental progress -- the year-over-year growth of hybrid models and fuel-efficient technologies, not to mention the growing number of companies doing such things in the first place? Or should we be concerned at the slow pace of progress, and the absence of any game-changing technology that's ready for market?
And what about the fact that green is no longer news -- that it's become woven into the fabric of everyday innovations and, therefore, less noteworthy? We've seen this happen in other sectors -- green buildings, for example, where announcements about a construction or remodeling project having achieved LEED certification have become background noise in the marketplace. I've argued before that this lack of newsworthiness is -- well, good news.
Should we celebrate this mainstreaming of green -- the steady drumbeat of incremental, but non-newsworthy innovations -- or be deeply concerned that by no longer being center stage such things may be too little, too late?