Michigan Detroit

Special Report: Detroit Motor Show

The great and the good of the automotive sector gathered in Motown in January for the annual chest-thumping extravaganza that is the Detroit Motor Show. E&T brings all the important developments in our multi-part special.

It has spent several years in the doldrums, but this year's Detroit Motor Show regained some of the panache and flair that made it the world's most influential motor show. Gone are the soul-destroying forums that bemoaned the parlous state of the global motor industry, replaced by an optimism and enthusiasm that augurs well for the future.

Even given the sanguine nature of the 2011 vintage, the outcome was more Cava than Dom Pérignon, and despite the upbeat feel there are great many challenges ahead, none greater than those that face the US Big Three of Chrysler, Ford and General Motors.

On the back of US government hand-outs Chrysler and GM have licked their wounds and are back in the hunt with a real zeal, while Ford has weathered the storm by its own devices and is fitter than ever.

However, the days of domination from the Detroit three are but a distant memory, and this slide from supremacy could not have been more starkly illustrated than the first day of the show. While traditionally the spotlight would have fallen on the US giants, the star was undoubtedly Volkswagen, as it unveiled its new US saloon which will be built in a state-of-the-art facility in Tennessee.

The Magnificent Seven

The local media have dubbed the new automotive powerbase as The Magnificent Seven, with VW, Nissan, Toyota and Honda being given an equal billing to the traditional Big Three. The dilemma that faces the US giants is clear to see simply by a quick glance at the collapsing US market. Back in 2007 a heady 16.5 million cars left the garage forecourts, but that tumbled to a shade over 10 million in 2009.

Even if 2010 is slightly up on that figure, it's a smaller pie to share amongst a much larger pack heralding an undignified feeding frenzy as the old Big Three try and maintain bragging rights on their home patch. But as this show evidenced, the competition will be tougher than ever with Hyundai/Kia vigorously attempting to gatecrash the party and the looming threat of manufacturers from China and India adding further predators to an already crowded landscape.

The future is certainly bright for an automotive sector that is forging new markets with new environmentally friendly breeds of vehicles, but with emerging markets gaining importance the era of the Big Three is over.

 

Electric vehicles undergo specialist crash testing

The arrival of the electric vehicle has set many challenges for the automotive industry, both technological and social. Chief amongst these has been assuaging the public's concerns with regards to vehicle safety. Apprehension centres on the battery size and increased car weight in electric vehicles and how they would react in crash situations.

Volvo used the Detroit show to try and dispel these concerns. The centrepiece of the Volvo stand was a crash-tested C30 electric car that had withstood a frontal collision at 40mph. Whilst this approach to safety is certainly not unique amongst automakers, Chevrolet for example has been heavily involved in work with US first responders over crash scenarios and Mitsubishi has recently released some details about crash tests of its iMieV, this was a high-profile and much needed safety endorsement.

The Sweden-based car manufacturer is well aware of the safety challenges electric vehicles pose, as it has been conducting research on EV-specific safety systems since September of last year.

The structure of electric vehicles is different to that of conventional fuel cars, with this particular model housing a battery pack weighing 330kg that takes up more space than a standard petrol tank. The car also houses a high-voltage, 400V, electric system, and a lighter electric motor. Protection of the battery is crucial.

'Our tests show it is vital to separate the batteries from the electric car's crumple zones to make it as safe as a conventional car,' Stefan Jacoby, Volvo Cars' president and CEO, explained. 'At Detroit we are the first car maker to show the world what a truly safe electric car looks like after a collision with high-speed impact.'

With the battery packs essentially replacing the fuel tank in terms of positioning within the car, the surrounding materials are robustly reinforced. Jans Ivarsson, senior manager safety strategy and requirements, believes this is imperative in making electric vehicles as safe as conventional cars.

'Our far-reaching research emphasises the importance of separating the lithium-ion batteries from the car's crumple zones and the passenger compartment,' he says. 'This is the same safety approach we apply with regard to the fuel tank in a conventional car. Another challenge is to reinforce the crumple zones at the front where the smaller motor occupies less space than usual.'

This is achieved by a frontal structure that helps to absorb the collision in the absence of the combustion engine. A structure of this kind is an especially important factor in electrical vehicles because the increased weight produces a far greater collision energy.

The car also houses an electrical safety system. Cables are shielded and the system is programmed to be able to detect and deal with any earth fault. An on-board crash sensor can trigger the fuses in 50ms in the event of a collision, in similar fashion to an airbag deployment system.

The crash test is an important part of rigorous safety tests – and in fact is not the only crash the car has to endure. Both side and rear impact test have been completed, as well as investigations on individual components and systems.

'The test produced exactly the results we expected,' Ivarsson says. 'It offered the very same high safety-level as a conventional model with a combustion engine: the front deformed and distributed the crash energy as we expected. Both the batteries and the cables that are part of the electric system remained entirely intact after the collision.'

Over the past 18 months the spotlight on commercial electric vehicles has grown, with more and more car manufacturers developing their own models, but Jacoby is keen to convey the need to ensure safety is top of the list of concerns.

His stance on the topic is clear. 'Several car makers have launched electric cars onto the market. We are monitoring their progress carefully and note that not everyone is approaching the safety challenges as we are. But for us at Volvo, this issue is crystal clear. We never compromise on our stringent safety demands.'

He believes that a non-compromised electric vehicle is one of the most important factors for the future success of all electric cars. Not only does the car have to be appealing to the car buyers but it has to deliver on the safety challenges it presents and Ivarsson agrees. 'For us the technology behind electric power is yet another exciting challenge in our drive to build the safest cars in the world.'

 

GM carmakers provide boost to UK manufacturing

FOllowing the UK automotive industry's recent prediction of up to a 5 per cent drop in car production in 2011, it was a week of positive announcements at the Detroit Motor Show. Opel, Cadillac and MG all stated their positive intentions for their UK operations in the coming year.

Cadillac unveiled its plans to build a new design facility in the UK to replace the former Coventry centre that was closed several years ago. 'Our UK studio continues to do terrific Cadillac work for us. Pound for pound it has to be the best-value studio in the business,' Ed Welburn, vice president of global design for General Motors said of the designers, who have been working at one of GM's bases.

Welburn likes to think that Cadillac has now got to a point where it can push ahead and do something it has not done before – develop the right products to break into the UK and European market. And for Welburn, the UK designers have everything to do with it saying, 'they are a key part of the Cadillac team; just about every Cadillac design involves them.'

Speaking of the proposed facility, the location of which has not been decided, Welburn continued: 'it is going to be a great facility and I'm really looking to visiting it.'

There was a further boost to the UK automotive sector from Opel, part of GM Europe, which revealed plans to begin exporting cars from the UK to countries such as Chile, Israel and Australia, with the Insignia, Astra and Corsa models part of the mix.

'Opel is the obvious brand for us to develop globally and in countries such as Australia it will sit above our Holden brand,' GM Europe boss Nick Reilly explained.

The move is expected to have a direct effect on the UK with the Vauxhall's Ellesmere Port plant benefiting. Reilly hopes that this will help GM Europe break even in 2011 and become profitable by 2012.

Meanwhile, a deal involving another GM brand, Vauxhall, and Chinese partner SAIC, saw a lifeline thrown for the future of MG in the UK. The successful GM-SAIC partnership has largely seen results in China, but there is hope that this deal will see some manufacturing returning to the UK.

The deal will help to begin selling MGs in Europe, but it does not mean Vauxhall dealers will be selling the vehicles. 'SAIC wants to start selling MGs in the UK and we will help them, but it will be a separate franchise and not through Vauxhall dealers,' Reilly said.

 

Time for electric vehicles 'to step up to the mark'

With a steady stream of new models being unveiled by car manufacturers worldwide, it appears that the time has come for the electric vehicle to step up to the mark and live up to its potential.

Although the Toyota Prius hybrid has been making inroads into the ICE market, all-electric cars are lagging behind. This year sees the launch of several high-profile models, and Detroit added a few more to the mix.

Ford revealed three electric and hybrid vehicles at the show, including its new battery-powered Focus. The Focus is said to run up to 100 miles once fully charged and is extremely competitive with the Nissan Leaf, with charging times of about half.

The future of EVs was also backed by GM boss Dan Akerson, who told of his own experiences with a Chevrolet Volt. After two months of driving it, Akerson claims to have used just 2.2 gallons of fuel to cover 800 miles.

A recent study showed that 80 per cent of Americans drive fewer than 40 miles a day and, given that information, Akerson believes that many EVs can become mainstream within the next five years. 'Forty miles a week is well within the range of most EVs,' he says, adding that it is about time the market stepped up.

'This is a growth industry that is also in the middle of a technological flux,' he says.

Specifically talking about battery technology Akerson believes the move from lithium-ion may be a way forward. 'I think there will be a jump to solid-state batteries so you have to be careful about committing to lithium-ion and plasma batteries, which could become redundant.'

 

Jaguar to purr on gas

When Jaguar unveiled its C-X75 concept car at last year's Paris Motor Show it made a huge impact. At Detroit Adrian Hallmark, Jaguar's brand director, spoke of possible plans to bring the gas turbine powertrain into production. He says it is one of the many technologies they are looking at developing over the coming years.

'There is a potential for this technology and if we could get it to work it would be great,' he says. 'There are a lot of technical issues to be addressed such as dealing with the heat from the exhaust.'

The technology itself includes the concept of producing 778hp and 1,180lb/ft of torque using four electric motors and two gas turbine generators. The four electric motors, each 195hp, are designated to one wheel each, and the twin gas turbines can be used in two ways. They can either be used to provide extra power to the four electric motors in something Jaguar classes as 'track mode', or it can be used to recharge the battery.

Hallmark says the concept is aimed at making future cars more eco-friendly, using a two-streamed development process.

'We are already using aluminium for the bodywork and we are looking at ancillary materials and composites. The other stream is lowering emissions. We are looking at stop-start systems, classic hybrid and high performance systems.'

Jaguar said the car can travel 68 miles on battery power alone, or up to 560 miles when the electric portion of the powertrain works in conjunction with the twin gas turbines. It can also accelerate from 0-60mph in just 3.4 seconds and has a top speed of 205mph.

 

The future for MPVs

One of the biggest automotive sectors is the multi-purpose vehicle (MPV) – or, as it is often dubbed, the minivan. Over the past few years, many concepts have come along that try to dispel the idea that MPVs are large, bulky and box-like, but at Detroit Kia embraced that notion with their new concept design the KV7.

'From the outset, we felt the category was in need of an honest reassessment due to the fact that everyone seems so desperate to attach the word 'sporty' to their MPV, even though MPVs are simply a box,' Tom Kearns, chief designer, Kia Motors America, says.

Billed as an 'activity MPV', designed at Kia's California location, the KV7 is all about challenging the preconceptions of MPVs that have gone before. Rather than basing the car on a family transportation vehicle, Kia is instead pitching this concept to a different market.

The car is seen as a social hub for groups of friends who need a car with the functionality to transport a large number of people, and their belongings.

'Rather than reject the box we chose to celebrate it,' Kearns continues.

On initial look the first element of the concept design is its passenger-side gullwing door. This, coupled with the pillar-less front passenger door, immediately give the idea that access is not a problem.

Its exterior, while maybe not looking exactly like a conventional MPV, has the same consistent exterior dimensions of the MPV market, and also allow for flexible seating arrangements and storage. The interior includes four custom-built swivelling seats and a rear-corner mini-lounge with seating for three plus integrated storage.

Each rear passenger seat comes with floating table-top touch-screen computer display. The car has the ability for passengers to connect via their smartphones for access to social networking sites, and is also entirely Wi-Fi enabled.

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