US car giants launch green drive

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Ford and General Motors, the two embattled giants of the US car industry, yesterday unveiled plans for environmentally friendly cars to try to maintain their position in an increasingly competitive market.

GM, the world's biggest car maker, revived the concept of the electric car, three years after it generated opprobrium from the environmental lobby by cancelling its pioneering electric vehicle, the EV-1.

The company unveiled the Chevrolet Volt yesterday at the glitzy Detroit Motor Show, where fuel efficiency and alternative fuels are emerging as a major focus. GM said its new vehicle - still at the concept stage after a year of development - could be recharged overnight and would save the average driver $900 a year at current fuel prices. It would mean, also, that 4.4 metric tons of carbon dioxide is no longer pumped into the atmosphere by the average driver.

Bob Lutz, head of global product development at GM, said the Volt fulfilled the company's promise to pursue "the electrification of the automobile, to increase energy diversity, and to move away as soon as it is technologically and economically possible from a world where the automobile industry is 98 per cent dependent on petroleum or petroleum-based fuels".

In GM's "E-Flex" system used by the Volt, electric rather than mechanical energy is used to move the vehicle.

"We commend GM for being the first out of the starting gate in the great plug-in car race of 2007," said Felix Kramer, who founded the non-profit group CalCars to spur car makers and regulators to push for mass-market electric car production.

The Volt was not the only plug-in car unveiled yesterday, as GM's cross-town rival Ford launched a space-age utility vehicle. The Ford Airstream concept, driven to 6,000 journalists at a press conference inside Detroit's Cobo Centre, is designed for long family journeys, with a futuristic interior inspired by Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, complete with lava lamps, swivel chairs and a video screen. It, too, runs on battery power which is generated by a hybrid fuel cell, or topped up from the mains.

The launch of the Volt comes as GM is under pressure over the cancellation of the EV-1 program in 2003, after just 1,100 vehicles were produced. A documentary film released in November - entitled Who Killed the Electric Car? - argued that GM conspired with oil companies to axe the project to protect their profitability. GM says there was simply no demand for a car that could travel barely 100 miles per charge.

GM said improvements in battery technology had given it the confidence to make a renewed stab at electric vehicle, but it could not predict how soon the car might be ready to launch. "We have a studied concept, but further battery development will define the critical path to start of production," it said.

Walter McManus, a former GM executive who is now director of automotive analysis at the University of Michigan, expressed his scepticism that the Volt would ever get to market, and said there were quicker ways for the US car industry to reduce the environmental impact of their products.

Raising an eyebrow at what he called "the magic E-Flex", Dr McManus said: "The battery technology that they are depending on is not available yet and just pouring money into it is not going to make it happen. They need to take fuel efficiency more seriously. GM and Ford have such technologies in their cars overseas; they should put their own technologies into their cars here."

Toyota said yesterday North American sales of its fuel-efficient hybrid vehicles would total 250,000 to 300,000 units this year, up from 191,000 in 2006. The Toyota Motor America president, Jim Press, told the Motor Show that while sales growth of the popular Prius hybrid sedan had droppedsince US tax credits on the car were reduced, demand was still strong.

Car show extras

* General Motors may be struggling to pay redundancy cheques for 30,000 workers, but it found the millions to pay for Detroit's most expensive Motor Show party, the celebrity-filled GM Style showcase for the new Chevrolet Camaro convertible.

* New Fords will read aloud text messages received in the car, using a system developed with Microsoft. Drivers will also be able tell the car which songs to choose from a digital player.

* US car industry executives hope demand in China will come to their rescue, and Europe's Volkswagen boasted that its Chinese sales rose 24 per cent to 711,000 vehicles last year.