Hybrids rev up for annual auto affair

Computer-enhanced autos, alternative-fuel vehicles will take driver's seat at New York International Auto Show. Photos: Hot cars in the city

John G. Spooner Staff Writer, CNET News.com
John Spooner
covers the PC market, chips and automotive technology.
John G. Spooner
5 min read

With Americans smarting from soaring gasoline prices, automakers are looking to get maximum mileage out of hybrids and alternative-fuel vehicles at this year's New York International Auto Show.

Many cars on the show floor will highlight the merging of autos with computerized functions such as graphical interfaces, iPod-supporting entertainment systems and even safety functions that can predict imminent collisions.


What's new:
Auto enthusiasts descending on Manhattan's Jacob Javits Center for the New York International Auto Show this week will see cars and computers sharing the same seat.

Bottom line:
With U.S. gasoline prices soaring past $2.09 per gallon to record averages, automakers at this year's show may be able to drum up extra interest for gas-electric hybrids and cars that run on alternative fuels such as hydrogen. Cars that play music from iPods might get a little attention too.

More stories on cars of the future

But new technology aimed at improving fuel efficiency and reducing pollution promises to steal at least some of the spotlight at the Manhattan event, which opens to the public Friday and runs through Sunday, April 3.

Hybrids, popularized by cars such as Toyota's Prius and Honda's Civic Hybrid, use a gasoline engine assisted by a battery-powered electric motor to lower the engine's fuel consumption, particularly in the city--and they're driving some optimistic sales projections from Toyota in advance of this week's show.

"If our goal of 300,000 units is reached by this year or next, I think one million within the following few years might be possible, but everyone around me says that would be difficult," Toyota President Fujio Cho said as the company unveiled its new hybrid Kluger and Harrier SUVs at an separate event in Tokyo on Tuesday.

Whether they're concept cars or production models, the new autos making their debut this week underscore a trend toward the merging of autos and computers. Carmakers have long placed electronics under the hood, where they monitor emission controls or help operate safety features such as air bags. Recently, however, more electronics have worked their way to the cars' surface--in this case the dashboard--as carmakers turn to technology to differentiate new models, gain fuel savings and offer new types of entertainment systems.

Features such as Apple Computer's iPod music player connectors and satellite radio receivers, both of which introduce ways to listen to music, are becoming popular in new models as manufacturers compete for customers.

At the same time, hybrids use numerous laptop PC-like batteries, and cars such as BMW's 3-Series offer graphical interfaces to control many of their functions.

New York Auto Show gallery

"BMW is a good example of the second wave" of sophisticated in dash electronics," said Chris Sams, head of public relations for the New York International Auto Show. "It's not new, but it's going into many more vehicles than before. Where it used to go into flagship vehicles, it's making its way into cars that are less money in a given brand, and even into lesser-priced brands such as Hyundai."

Overall, carmakers will introduce about 50 concept and production models at this year's show, Sams said. There, they'll attempt to generate buzz during two days of back-to-back press conferences and then bedazzle the projected 1.2 million auto enthusiasts who are expected to visit the show at Manhattan's Jacob Javits Center.

Toyota's Lexus division plans to unveil a gas-electric hybrid luxury sedan, the GS 450h, at the show. It will use the drive train to pair relatively miserly fuel consumption with luxury and performance.

Ford, whose Escape SUV is available with a hybrid drive train, will also show off a diesel electric hybrid concept called the Mercury Meta One. The car, first introduced at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit in January, sports reconfigurable displays that allow drivers to size and place gauges to suit their needs, as well as a technology called "collision mitigation by braking." CMB uses a camera, radar and onboard computer to sense other vehicles and determine, based on their location, speed and direction, whether a collision is imminent. It can then warn the driver and deliver extra braking power if needed.

GM's Sequel concept car, first unveiled at the Detroit show, uses a fuel cell that converts hydrogen into electricity. The Sequel, which also uses a drive-by-wire throttle, is meant to show off GM's vision for fuel cell vehicles of the future. The company said in January that

its goal is to create, by 2010, a fuel cell propulsion system that's competitive with current internal combustion systems with regard to durability and performance. The Sequel can travel up to 300 miles on a tank full of hydrogen and accelerates to 60 mph in less than 10 seconds, GM said in a statement.

Electronics will also take center stage for entertainment. GM, for example, has become the latest automaker to announce plans to hook up with Apple's iPod, a trend started by BMW. Mercedes, Volvo and Nissan, among others, have also announced plans for iPod connectors in their cars.

GM will equip several new cars with radios that include an auxiliary channel and front-mounted auxiliary input jack, so that an iPod or other audio source can be plugged in and its music played through the vehicle audio system.

Buick's Lucerne, a sedan that will be on display at the show and come out this fall, includes a number of new electronically driven features, ranging from magnetic ride control and stability control to the iPod-connected radio, a Buick representative said. Among the first GM models to offer an iPod connection will be the Chevrolet HHR, Impala and Monte Carlo. The connectors will also appear in Saturn Vue and Ion models, Pontiac's Solstice roadster and Cadillac's DTS, GM said in a statement.

The New York Auto show also will feature numerous other concept cars geared toward an active lifestyle, performance or even nostalgia.

Good old American horsepower will be on tap from Chrysler and Ford, which will show off concept cars such as the Chrysler Firepower. The coupe has a 6.1-liter Hemi V8 and its chassis is based on the Dodge Viper sports car. Ford will show its Shelby GR-1, a two-seat, 605 horsepower, V-10 engine "supercar" emblazoned with the stamp of racing legend Carol Shelby. The company is also expected to show off a version of a new high-performance Mustang.

To ensure there's something for everyone--even off-road enthusiasts--Jeep will host an indoor test track, complete with a 20-foot-high mountain, where consumers will be able to test out its vehicles, Sams said.