WASHINGTON -- Automakers last week sought to show the public - and especially the federal government - that they are serious about developing options to wean their vehicles from gasoline.
The setting was the Washington Auto Show, revamped this year for a higher global profile and more contact between industry executives and government officials.
On the show's technology front:
The automakers weren't the only ones trying to send a message. A coalition of interest groups launched a campaign at the show to pressure the industry to build plug-in hybrids.
Such vehicles would be connected to electrical outlets when not in use. On short trips, advocates say, they would rely more on cleaner, cheaper electric power than do the gasoline-electric hybrids now on the roads.
U.S. Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman announced at the show $119 million in continued federal funding for industry-government research on hydrogen fuel cells. The Bush administration has declared such research a priority.
In the show's keynote address, Tom Purves, CEO of BMW of North America LLC, compared the industry now and a century ago. Then, Purves said, no one was sure whether steam, electricity or "controlled explosions" would power automobiles. The least likely option won, he added.
"Again we are looking at competing solutions," Purves said. BMW's bet is to use hydrogen in internal combustion engines, he said.
Industry executives were more cautious about the plug-in hybrids promoted by a coalition of city governments, utilities, environmental groups and national security organizations.
Peter Savagian, engineering director at General Motors Powertrain, said his company is studying plug-in hybrids among other technologies. GM is "kind of intrigued by the concept," he said.
Anne Stevens, Ford COO for the Americas, said her company is concerned about the durability of the heftier battery packs that plug-ins would require.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said a plug-in hybrid, especially one that uses alternative fuel, could be a "silver bullet" for the nation's auto-related environmental problems and dependence on oil.
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