WASHINGTON, DC—The Detroit and New York auto shows may have the new car introductions, but Washington has the politicians. It’s the policy show, where the talk is about regulations and who’s in the White House.
Since Obama is the current occupant, everybody brings up his order requiring 54.5 mpg from the nation’s auto fleets by 2025. There’s rumblings that, because of $2 a gallon gas, that lofty goal is now impossible to meet and will have to be “corrected” in a mid-term review. Fuel economy, far from getting better, is actually declining.
Automakers, even those who endorsed the goal initially, are balking now. Americans are moving heavily into SUVs (especially crossovers). To reach 54.5, we’d need only 35 percent or so of our fleet be SUVs and trucks — not the over 60 percent we have now.
That said, automakers are basically upbeat about their more than 14 million sales year, and still heavily committed to bringing out electrics, plug-in hybrids and fuel-cell cars. The default now is that new models will have a hybrid version. And there’s huge enthusiasm not only for connected and autonomous cars, but for the government’s role in stepping in with level-the-playing-field regulations.
“In the next two years, we’ll see things that you can’t imagine now,” said Sen. Gary Peters (D-Michigan), who spoke at a pre-show forum on Capitol Hill. One of those things is cars conversing with each other, basically creating a situation in which crashes would become much less likely. “A bridge could tell your car it’s icing up,” Peters said.
The federal safety agency thinks 80 percent of accidents can be eliminated. Everyone wants that to happen, but it’s dependent on t he 5.9 gigahertz spectrum being reserved for what’s called vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communications. And the cable TV lobby wants the same bandwidth. That’s the kind of conflict that will only get resolved in Washington, not in Detroit.
Not only will we have V2V, said John Kenney of the Toyota Information Technical Center, we will also have V2X, or vehicles to everything. Your car telling the coffeemaker to start, the garage door to open and the lights turned on? That’s just the beginning.
All those communicating cars present security challenges. General Motors was the first automaker to create a cyber security agency. Meanwhile, federal agencies are using the power of their offices to weigh in on issues such as auto safety, self-driving cars and automobiles talking to each other (which is soon to be mandated on new cars by the feds). Speakers at the show included Energy Secretary Ernest Munoz and safety czar Mark Rosekind. "It's not science fiction to say that technology could help us avoid the vast majority of fatal crashes."
The cars on the stands in Washington are technological marvels, offering not just great stereos with 20 speakers, but important safety innovations such as lane keeping, automatic emergency braking, adaptive cruise control, front and rear collision warnings. Here are a few highlights of what I saw at the show.
The Chrysler Pacifica, introduced by Bruce Velisek, is the first American hybrid minivan, and it's a plug in, too, with 30 miles of electric range from its 16-kilowatt-hour battery pack. (Photo: Jim Motavalli)
Fiat Chrysler actually unveiled the Pacifica, an all-new minivan with a plug-in hybrid variant, in Detroit, but I got a better look at it in Washington. The minivan segment is sneered at, but it’s 500,000 units annually, three percent of the U.S. industry, and it deserves better. According to Bruce Velisek, Chrysler brand marketing manager, “We invented the category 30 years ago and sold 14.3 million of them. We changed the name from Town and Country because we heard loud and clear that the name makes people think of a box with wood-grained sides. This is brand-new, a benchmark for what the minivan can be for the modern family.”
That family, with both parents working, wants a full range of safety and infotainment — connecting to their phones will be important. The Pacifica has that covered (there are two touchscreens, for instance), along with usefully folding seats and a big sunroof that ends in a fixed glass section over the third row.
The version that interests me is the very first hybrid minivan in the U.S. market, with 30 miles of electric range from its 16 kilowatt-hour battery pack. It can recharge in two hours, using a 240-volt charger. Under the hood is the same 3.6-liter V-6 seen in the regular version, but detuned to produce a mere 248 horsepower. Fuel economy is said to be 80 miles per gallon equivalent.
Alfa-Romeo’s Giulia Quadrifoglio is also interesting, as the Italian legacy company bids to get back in the U.S. market. The ultra-expensive 4C and 4C Spider, although exciting (0 to 60 in just four seconds), sells in tiny volumes — just 800 so far.
The Giulia, however, is a gorgeous and practical four-door sedan that can be had as either a high-performance monster with a 505 horsepower bi-turbo V-6, or as a tamer (and affordable) cousin with a direct-injected, turbocharged two-liter four. Even though I’m a former Alfa owner, I’d want that one. I don’t really need to go zero to 60 in 3.8 seconds or get anywhere near 200 mph. And I’d want a lot of change back from $70,000.
And finally, Washington offered a closer look at the all-electric Chevrolet Bolt, which I drove at CES in Las Vegas. The big news is the 200-mile range from a 60-kilowatt-hour LG Chem battery pack with 288 cells. And it offers a price tag that, with certain state rebates (like mine) is as low as $27,000. The car hits 60 mph in seven seconds, and offers performance and handling in line with a Japanese pocket rocket. Rear legroom isn’t bad either.
The designed-in-Korea-but-built-in-America Bolt is good looking, too, now that I see it in civilian guise. Is this the car that “cracks the code of the long-distance EV,” as GM’s Pam Fletcher put it? Could be. It’s either this one or Tesla’s soon-to-be-revealed Model 3. The latter is sure to get some sales on its name alone, but time will tell which one is actually better.
Incidentally, the Chevrolet Malibu Hybrid was the Green Connected Car of the Year, chosen in a ceremony at the Washington show. The Honda HR-V was Green SUV of the Year, and the Volvo XC90 T8 was Luxury Green Car of the Year. And here's some cool video from the floor of the show--painting a Kia, with a spray can:
And here's the "Back to the Future" version of the Toyota Mirai: