Flexfuel to power the fu­ture

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THE au­to­mo­bile’s fu­ture is elec­tronic and green, us­ing al­ter­na­tive fu­els and slick tech­nol­ogy to pro­tect both peo­ple and the en­vi­ron­ment, the head of the world’s largest car com­pany said this week. Gen­eral Mo­tors chief ex­ec­u­tive Rick Wagoner’s pre­dic­tion dur­ing an ad­dress at the Con­sumer Elec­tron­ics Show (CES).

He capped his pre­sen­ta­tion by un­veil­ing a pro­to­type Cadil­lac Provoq sedan pow­ered by hy­dro­gen and elec­tric­ity from a lithium ion bat­tery pack.

Wagoner promised that by 2012 half the car-maker’s US pro­duc­tion line will be de­voted to ve­hi­cles pow­ered by ‘‘ flexfuel’’, en­vi­ron­men­tally friendly al­ter­na­tives to oil­based fu­els.

‘‘ The fu­ture of the auto is bright and in­creas­ingly elec­tronic,’’ Wagoner said in the first-ever CES speech by a car com­pany ex­ec­u­tive.

‘‘ All the fac­tors point to a con­ver­gence of the au­to­mo­tive and elec­tron­ics in­dus­tries that is lit­er­ally trans­form­ing the au­to­mo­bile.’’

A ma­jor ad­vance­ment on the hori­zon is get­ting cars to com­mu­ni­cate with each other, ac­cord­ing to Wagoner.

Cars will be able to re­ceive sig­nals from other ve­hi­cles and then use com­put­erised con­trols to take ac­tions such as slow­ing to avoid col­li­sions.

‘‘ One of the next big steps is to con­nect au­to­mo­biles elec­tron­i­cally to keep them from con­nect­ing phys­i­cally,’’ Wagoner said. ‘‘ We are work­ing our way up the tech­nol­ogy lad­der.’’

New cars al­ready con­tain more elec­tron­ics than steel, a GM en­gi­neer said.

Ex­ist­ing map­ping, satel­lite nav­i­ga­tion, wire­less com­mu­ni­ca­tions, and spa­tial de­tec­tion de­vices can be in­te­grated to build a ‘‘ ro­bot car’’ smart enough to drive it­self, he noted.

A Chevro­let Ta­hoe con­verted into a self- driv­ing ve­hi­cle won the US defence de­part­ment’s De­fense Ad­vanced Re­search Projects Agency Ur­ban Chal­lenge by ma­noeu­ver­ing through traf­fic on mock city streets in Novem­ber.

Carnegie Mellon Univer­sity stu­dents mod­i­fied the SUV into an ‘‘ au­ton­o­mous ve­hi­cle’’ with back­ing from GM.

‘‘ Au­ton­o­mous driv­ing means that some­day you could do your email, eat break­fast, do your makeup, and watch a video while com­mut­ing to work,’’ Wagoner said.

‘‘ In other words, you could do all the things you do now while com­mut­ing to work but do them safely.’’

GM’s OnS­tar sys­tem in cars al­ready au­to­mat­i­cally sum­mons help in the event of crashes and pin­points the lo­ca­tions of stolen ve­hi­cles.

Sys­tem up­grades soon to be im­ple­mented in­clude re­motely forc­ing stolen cars to slow or stop when spot­ted by po­lice to pre­vent thieves from rac­ing away, ac­cord­ing to GM.

OnS­tar im­prove­ments soon to be re­vealed in­clude send­ing email di­rec­tions from com­put­ers to cars and us­ing mo­bile tele­phones to lock doors, start en­gines, or honk to sig­nal lo­ca­tions in park­ing lots, a GM en­gi­neer said.

In Novem­ber, GM signed a deal to pro­vide OnS­tar ser­vice in China.

Elec­tronic in­no­va­tions are vi­tal to break­ing the auto in­dus­try’s oil de­pen­dency for the sake of the world’s de­te­ri­o­rat­ing cli­mate and dwin­dling oil re­serves, Wagoner said.

‘‘ The auto in­dus­try can no longer rely al­most ex­clu­sively on oil,’’ Wagoner said. ‘‘ This is a global is­sue.’’

Ap­prox­i­mately 270 mil­lion cars and trucks were sold world­wide in 2007 and an­a­lysts ex­pect that fig­ure to more than triple in the next few years due to de­mand in China and other grow­ing economies in Asia.

GM will soon an­nounce pro­duc­tion of a plug-in elec­tric car, Wagoner said. AFP

The road ahead: Gen­eral Mo­tors chair­man and CEO Rick Wagoner poses with a Cadil­lac Provoq, a fuel cell con­cept car

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