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2010 Detroit Auto Show "EcoXperience" - Can I actually drive that thing or will it tip over?

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SEE ALSO: 2010 Detroit Auto Show Press Pass Coverage
SEE ALSO: Electric Vehicls - Solution or Diversion (Detroit Show Update)

Detroit auto show goers get road test time in experimental green cars

By Martha Hindes
Detroit Bureau
The Auto Channel

Detroit - January 13, 2010: For those who doubted the switch to eco-friendly would last, Detroit has been staging a major "oh yeah?"

Since Monday when press days began at the 2010 North American International Auto show (NAIAS) here, the green theme has permeated every aspect of the annual event. Whether it has been spurred on by volatile hiccups in gasoline prices, climate change, overall economic woes or the constant cloud of being held hostage to foreign oil availability is unclear. But the results aren't.

Large and small, weird or boringly average in appearance, green cars have been proliferating with amazing speed.

For anyone who doubts the impact, the annual Detroit show has been offering seat time in a variety of vehicles that run the gamut of new, earth-friendlier technologies. All that's required is a valid driver's license, a waiver of any responsibility so the show doesn't get sued if someone decides to go crazy with the accelerator, a breathalyzer test and enough patience to stand in line for a while.

And there's an actual roadway -- of sorts -- for the test in real vehicles, not some kind of booth or the need to wear a pair of simulator glasses. Banked by fields of spring flowers, boulders, trees and a waterfall, a narrow roadway winds around the lower level of Detroit's Cobo Center, the downtown home of the annual auto show.

We had passed registration requirements with flying colors then checked the list of vehicles to choose from.

A Chevrolet Equinox crossover from General Motors Co. sported a hydrogen fuel cell power source, the most advanced and far reaching of the technologies under development. While it shows the most promise of being earth friendly, with no emissions other than water vapor, it's been under development for at least two decades by most major auto companies including GM and Mercedes-Benz, but still is years away from being a practical large-scale replacement for the century-old internal combustion engine. That's largely because of its current prohibitive price and the lack of hydrogen fueling stations around the country. The goal for now is reducing the cost, plus advanced testing with the aim of superseding such transitional technologies as today's clean diesel or hybrid gas-electric vehicles, or the upcoming plug-in hybrid electrics.

During the drive, other than a display of the hydrogen fuel tank storage locations on the Equinox's navigation system, it cruised along smoothly below the course's 15 mph speed limit with virtually no indication of its futuristic underpinnings.

"Just put it in drive and go" said co-driver Mark Vann, program manager for the Fuel Cell Equinox. "It does not have an engine or a transmission. You are driving on electricity."

The underlying technology is similar to the plug-in electric Chevy Volt that gets its energy from a lithium ion battery and a range extender. But in the fuel cell Equinox electricity comes from a nickel metal hydride battery fed by a "fuel stack," a set of membranes that disassemble and reassemble fuel in a chemical reaction-type process rather than burning it. The fuel source is compressed hydrogen in tanks that take about five minutes for a refill once the 200-mile range of about 50 miles per gallon equivalent is reached. The cars currently are being tested worldwide and some will service the upcoming Winter Olympics in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

Mercedes-Benz also had their fuel cell-powered B-class crossover available for testing.

The oddest looking test car was the Tango, a plug-in all-electric vehicle from a father and son company named Commuter Cars (, that looks as if someone squashed it from both sides. It holds two in a front and a rear seat configuration, like a pair riding a tandem bike or the cockpit setup of a glider plane. Despite its narrow shape and dimensions, it rode surprisingly well with no sense of instability. That's because the 2,000-pound battery pack close to the ground provides an extremely low center of gravity that keeps it stable even at highway speeds.

"The car should last a million miles," said Bryan Woodbury, vice president of the Spokane, Washington-based firm. Some of the lithium ion batteries are warranted to last 400,000 miles, he said.

"It's built of stainless steel and carbon fiber so it's not going to rust out or anything. There's no oil to change. No fan belts. Each motor has only one moving part so it's not complicated like an engine."

While it's actually on the market and some flush buyers have bought a few, don't expect its small size to be reflected in cost. Even at its $120,000 (lead acid battery) or $150,000 (lithium ion) price range, the company isn't making a profit on them. Their goal and perhaps a reason for being part of the million dollar automotive "X Prize" future technologies competition, is to get the needed financing to expand production.

Some electric urban cars were available to drive.

One is the Think! city car, now independent from Ford Motor Company that originally developed it as a golf-cart type vehicle in the early '90s. We kept the speed under control on the course despite its 75 mph top speed. It felt similar to driving a subcompact auto with a huge capacity trunk and available air conditioning.

Another all-electric urban car we drove was from Korea's TC&T. It's now sold in Korea and China and is just entering test marketing in the U.S. Its approximate $13,000 entry price here suggests a more limited capability that's reflected in urban roadway speeds only. It drove smoothly on the course, but won't handle freeways.

Of the approximately 20 vehicles available for testing, some were green vehicles already on the road. Ford Motor Co. had its Ford and Mercury hybrid vehicles on site for testing, while Audi provided two turbo-injected clean diesels for the short road course.

And sometimes eco-friendly can be a new take on an existing offering. Smart, the small, sassy "A-class" car for two who ride side-by-side, with a high mileage, tiny internal combustion engine from Mercedes-Benz is one. It's now sold in the U.S. after a decade in Europe, and is moving into a new "Car-to-Go" venture.

In an urban test underway, someone can get a special credit card, find an available Smart online or by phone, swipe the card along a windshield scanner that releases the ignition key, and drive off. In high density urban areas, the driver can use it for short trips or errands at a per minute charge, then drop it off at its destination without having to own a vehicle at all. You could call that the ultimate in reducing environmental impact.