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OUR SO-CAL LIFE

Any color, as long as it's green

December 04, 2006

THERE ARE TWO kinds of cars on display at the Los Angeles Auto Show, which started Friday at the L.A. Convention Center and ends next Sunday: the kind on revolving platforms surrounded by spokesbabes in racy outfits, and the kind that you might actually drive someday.

As always, the concept cars at the show are incredibly cool and, as always, they're incredibly unlikely. Some of the futuristic roadsters are so sleek they look like they might bite. My personal favorite is a retro Dodge muscle car in bright orange; it should only be driven while shuttling moonshine across the Alabama border.

If there is anything more fantastic than the concept cars, though, it's the environmental promises being made by the automakers. This being the green-oriented West Coast, they're showcasing their most environmentally friendly vehicles at the show. But don't look for many '07 models that significantly cut emissions, increase mileage or run on alternative fuels; most of the technologies being trumpeted this week are years down the road. Some will never get here.

Much of that "green" fanfare from Detroit has been more about public relations than environmental commitment. Ford and General Motors in particular face lawsuits and an outcry in California over their continued focus on gas-guzzling, greenhouse-gas-emitting SUVs and light trucks. Hence GM chief Rick Wagoner's announcement Wednesday that within three years the company would produce a biofuel-driven Hummer.

Memo to Wagoner: Hummer drivers aren't likely to be the types who sit up at night worrying about global warming or the U.S. addiction to foreign oil. Install a video-game console in the dashboard or a revolving turret on the roof, and you might be on to something.

Ford, meanwhile, is touting a fuel-cell SUV that can go 350 miles on a tank of hydrogen, farthest of any fuel-cell vehicle so far. It's a nice little breakthrough, but it won't appear in showrooms anytime soon. Mass-produced fuel-cell cars are at least a decade away. Even if they succeed, factors beyond the automakers' control could make fuel-cell cars impractical -- they would need a fueling station infrastructure built from the ground up.

Not all the environmental news from the show has been bunkum. Several new hybrid models are coming out, and Volkswagen and DaimlerChrysler announced diesel vehicles clean enough to meet California emissions standards. Maybe the most exciting announcement came from Wagoner, who said GM was committed to building a plug-in hybrid.

Plug-ins represent the most promising near-term technology for cutting emissions and gasoline use. They use a system similar to existing hybrids but with a bigger battery that can be recharged by plugging it into a home outlet. This allows them to run for 20 to 40 miles on battery power before the gas engine kicks in, far enough for a commute or grocery run.

As you'd expect from GM, the proposed plug-in won't be a sporty sedan but an SUV. And Wagoner couldn't give a date for its arrival, so it may not appear for years. Toyota, meanwhile, is said to be working on a plug-in version of its popular Prius hybrid. If it arrives before or at the same time as GM's plug-in, the Japanese automakers will probably once again eat Detroit's lunch.

Dan Turner

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