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Detroit auto show: the future of energy-efficient cars and trucks

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Jessica J. Trevino/Detroit Free Press/AP

(Read caption) Bob Lutz, retired General Motors executive, talks to Thomas Edison as part of a hologram presentation at the 2013 Detroit auto show. The stunt underscored the automakers' panache for head-turning displays, and hinted at the less-flashy innovations taking place under the hoods.

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The Detroit auto show is rife with attention-grabbing displays, but they rarely involve time travel.

VIA Motors seemed to at the Detroit auto show Monday when it featured Thomas Edison – portrayed by an actor in holographic form – lending wisdom to Bob Lutz, retired General Motors executive and a driving force behind the Chevy Volt electric car.

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"Now it's your turn to share the light," the projected electric light-bulb pioneer told Mr. Lutz in an exchange that preluded the unveiling of VIA's latest line of converted-electric trucks, vans and SUVs. 

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The stunt underscored the automakers' panache for head-turning displays, and hinted at the less-flashy innovations taking place under the hoods. The heart of the Detroit auto show may be automotive eye-candy, but some automakers highlighted new approaches to energy use in an industry that consumes a lot of it.

For VIA, fleet vehicles – those used as taxis, buses, and by large companies – were a target of energy savings. The company has developed an extended-range electric cargo van that it expects will achieve 100 miles per gallon with near zero emissions.  

"By demonstrating that going green can also be good business, large fleets like Verizon's can have a significant influence on the direction of the auto industry and help accelerate the adoption of clean vehicles like VIA's electric work vans,"  said Lutz, who is also a VIA board member, in a statement.

Verizon Communications Inc., a New York-based company, collaborated with VIA on the concept. Cargo vans make up 30 percent of the company's 38,000 vehicles, consuming 41 million gallons of fuel each year. Verizon plans to test two of the VIA electric cargo vans in New Jersey and New York.

"We believe the challenges businesses face in operating sustainable fleets require an ecosystem of innovation," Ken Jack, vice president of fleet for Verizon, said in a statement. "Electrifying these work vehicles could have a significant impact on a nationwide reduction in fuel consumption and CO2 emissions."

In 2009, there were more than 3 million commercial fleet vehicles on US road, consuming nearly 4 billion gallons of fuel, according to the US Department of Energy's National Clean Fleets Partnership.

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Cadillac, Nissan and Mercedes also touted new electric or hybrid vehicles at the Detroit auto show, affirming advocates' hopes for a battery-powered future. Despite the display of electric enthusiasm, some noted that the electric car is still far from mainstream.

“The good news is battery costs [are expected] to be lower by 50 percent within the next couple years,” Simon Ng, director of the National Biofuels Energy Laboratory at Wayne State University in Detroit, told Midwest Energy News. But “there are issues of durability, safety, and replacement cost of battery; and that will take a few more years of intense research and development.” 

There were energy-efficient innovations above the hood as well. Ford's Atlas Concept features automatic wheel shutters that close to create a flat, flush wheel surface at highway speeds. The shutters, along with other aerodynamic elements, provide a fuel savings of 2 mpg, according to the automaker. 

Thomas Edison, an early champion of efficient power, would be proud.

"We are like tenant farmers chopping down the fence around our house for fuel when we should be using Nature's inexhaustible sources of energy — sun, wind and tide," Edison said in 1931. "I'd put my money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of power! I hope we don't have to wait until oil and coal run out before we tackle that."