Jan 122010
Lotus 60th Celebration
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About 98 percent of the vehicles sold in the United States last year were powered by conventional gasoline engines, and hybrids occupied just a tiny niche.

But at the opening Monday of the big Detroit auto show, the internal-combustion engine seemed almost passé.

The world’s automakers unveiled a number of hybrid gas-electric and battery-powered models, several of which might not be available for years to come.

It is a telling sign of how much emphasis that car companies are placing on the electrification of vehicles — even though consumers have yet to show widespread interest in alternatives to gas engines.

“Green technologies are the master key to the future of the automobile,” said Thomas Weber, the head of research and development at Mercedes-Benz, which plans to deliver the first 200 of its B-Class F-Cell electric cars to customers in the United States and Europe this year.

The focus on electric and hybrid cars is about more than just a desire to reduce oil dependency and help the environment, though those are the benefits that automakers cite as they unveil the new models. They also will help the automakers meet future emission regulations. “The manufacturers have to play this game,” said James Bell, executive market analyst for Kelley Blue Book.

The new standards, enacted last year by the Obama administration, require automakers’ fleets to achieve 35.5 miles a gallon by 2016, up from 27.5 miles a gallon today.

While automakers have to make vehicles that meet the more stringent regulations, consumers have shown little interest in buying them, aside from the brief period last year when gasoline prices spiked to more than $4 a gallon and hybrids were in short supply.

“Hybrids are less than 3 percent of the market, and they’ve been less than 3 percent for years,” said Rebecca Lindland, an analyst with the research firm IHS Global Insight. “The idea that people are going to immediately accept electric vehicles when hybrids are such a small part of the market is sort of dangerous.”

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