By Dustin Walsh, Crain's Detroit Business
Detroit, Michigan — Cars will do what cars do at the North American International Auto Show — draw crowds and cameras.
But at several exhibits, rapid advancements in new fuel-saving products will have supplier executives and politicians using the Detroit event as a showcase for new technology and a platform to talk about the future.
While automotive infotainment was the focus at last week's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, fuel economy technology will shine at this week's NAIAS media and industry days at Cobo Center.
Suppliers such as Denso International America Inc. and Johnson Controls Inc. are displaying emerging fuel-saving technology at this year's show.
Doug Patton, senior vice president of Denso International's engineering division, said suppliers are moving toward complete systems to highlight technology, which makes them more visible than individual products.
"There's always been a lot of technology at the auto show, but it's been buried in the car and you didn't see it," Patton said. "What you're seeing now is a system approach where we bring technologies together and look at them as a whole for the best value."
The challenge, experts say, is how to unite these technology advancements with sales strategies for OEMs.
David Cole, chairman of nonprofit research group Auto Harvest and chairman emeritus of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich., said the increase in fuel-savings technology is a prime example of an uncertain industry.
Bottom line: The added costs of these technologies, while promoted and touted at NAIAS, may not equate to consumer adoption — at least not yet.
"We're really pushing the laws of the thermodynamics of engine performance, but at what cost?" Cole said. "This is really expensive stuff, and nobody has the right answer to the best benefit, so everyone is kind of out there working on a lot of things."
The government push for fuel economy is pitting increased technology against consumer pocketbooks. CAR estimates a $2,000 increased vehicle cost for a 20 percent improvement in fuel economy.
"Is that enough?" Cole said. "It's a very confusing period for the industry."
Government-regulated CAFE standards require manufacturers to meet a 54.5 mpg average across their fleets by 2025.
Automakers and suppliers alike continue to push these technologies and push further into vehicle electrification to appease government demands, despite ho-hum sales.
The Detroit show is expected to host various federal officials from EPA and other agencies.
Among the green cars being highlighted at the Detroit show, General Motors Co. will unveil its Cadillac ELR Luxury Electric Hybrid on Tuesday morning, Via Motors will showcase battery-electric cars and BMW will debut its ActiveHybrid3.
Experts say that for consumers, range anxiety remains the biggest stumbling block for EV adoption. The Chevy Volt, for example, achieves roughly 40 miles on its electric battery before a traditional gas-powered motor steps in.
In a KPMG LLP study released last week, 87 percent of automotive executives said EVs won't match the range of gas-powered vehicles for at least another five years.
"Clearly, they don't see the numbers of these vehicles increasing," said Betsy Meter, partner at KPMG in Detroit and its automotive audit leader. "We all kept expecting these numbers to significantly increase, but executives continue to see them at a low level, despite investment."
US EV sales totaled 52 835 in 2012, according to the Electric Drive Transportation Association. The grand total of hybrids, plug-in hybrids and battery electric vehicles sold last year in the US totaled 487 480, which represents 3.4 percent of the 14.5 million cars sold last year.
That's better than the 2.2 percent of total sales in 2011. And the market for EVs is expanding alongside the growing US auto market — which is expected to eclipse 15 million units this year.