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Autos of future on display at Autobahn

RebeccRiebe with Global Midwest Alliance smiles before departing Mitsubishi MiEV 100 percent plug-electric vehicle during showcase cars thrun alternative fuels

Rebecca Riebe, with Global Midwest Alliance, smiles before departing in a Mitsubishi MiEV, a 100 percent plug-in electric vehicle, during a showcase of cars that run on alternative fuels by the Illinois Chamber of Commerce and Argonne National Laboratory at The Autobahn Country Club Thursday, Aug. 16, 2012, in Joliet. | Matthew Grotto~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: September 18, 2012 6:09AM

JOLIET — It was like the Lollapalooza of alternative-fuel vehicles.

There was a Chevy Volt. There were Nissan Leafs. There was a Chrysler Ram pickup running on compressed natural gas. And even a Porsche Cayenne hybrid. And more, more, more.

The future of motor vehicles was put on display for business and government leaders and taken for test drives Thursday at the Autobahn Country Club.

“The whole purpose of this event is to showcase that the cars that run without gas and better than gas are not a fad or a trend,” said Tom Wolf, executive director of the Illinois Chamber of Commerce’s Energy Council, which organized “Taking the Future Out For a Spin” for chamber members from around the state.

Alternative-fuel vehicles may or may not be a fad. But they are not necessarily better than gas, said one of the experts brought in for a panel discussion on the future of alternative-fuel vehicles.

Different cars for different purposes, said Tony Burrell, department head for Argonne National Laboratory’s Energy Storage Department.

Burrell spoke of a future that does not include all electric vehicles all the time.

“You’re not going to stop having gasoline engines,” Burrell said. “You’re not going to stop having diesels. But you’re going to have electric vehicles. You’re going to have all of these.”

Not on the track at the Autobahn on Thursday.

It was strictly alternative fuel, although those of course did include hybrids running on engines powered by both gasoline and electric.

Among the unique rides on the track was a mobility vehicle manufactured by Vehicle Production Group in Mishawaka, Ind. The company’s MV-1 van probably actually is more singular for the fact that it is built at the factory to be handicapped accessible, unlike other vehicles that are converted for wheelchair users.

“This comes out of a state-of-the-art assembly plant,” said Robert Legacy, regional sales manager for VPG.

It comes in natural gas or gasoline engines, he said. Legacy said fleet buyers such as taxi companies have been choosing natural gas vehicles for the fuel savings.

“We’ve got about 100 taxis in Chicago that are MV-1s,” he said.

Ford this fall is coming out with a Focus indistinguishable from its other Focus models but for the fact that it is an all-electric vehicle.

“I’ve heard a hundred times people say this is just like a Focus,” said Tony Reinhart, regional director for government and community relations for Ford Motor Co. The idea behind the all-electric Focus is to not change a thing other than the power train, Reinhart said.

The all-electric Focus like other all-electric vehicles, including the Nissan Leaf, is designed to go up to 100 miles before a recharge. That’s been one of the dampers on demand for all-electric cars. It’s a soccer mom or commuter’s special, one salesman at the Autobahn said.

A Fisker Karma at the Autobahn is capable of going 300 miles on a charge, noted Burrell, the battery expert from Argonne. But, Burrell noted, a single battery can only hold so much energy, so those cars that can go longer have more batteries and those batteries take up space.

“There are laws of physics that we can’t break,” Burrell said. “Putting energy into smaller and smaller space is very hard.”

This isn’t the first go-around for alternative fuels, either, said Hal Emalfarb, another member of the panel of experts. Emalfarb is a founder of Carbon Day Automotive, a Chicago company that makes electric refueling stations.

“Electric vehicles up to about 1920 actually dominated the road,” Emalfarb said, noting they made a comeback in the 1960s. “We’re going back to the future.”

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