If you can't sell the present, try pitching the future.
The North American International Auto Show looks past 2008's 18% drop in sales from the previous year and 2009's weaker prospects to a future with electric vehicles.
Emission-free "green" cars are creating buzz in an otherwise downbeat industry.
But widespread use is years away despite automakers' belief that millions of buyers are ready to make the jump to all-electric cars.
General Motors (GM) grabbed most of the attention at Detroit's Cobo Center with its all-electric Chevrolet Volt. The automaker says it plans to have the concept car in production by late 2010.
GM says the Volt has a 40-mile range on a single battery charge. Toyota (TM) countered with a car that has a 50-mile range, and Ford (F) says it's working on an electric car with a 100-mile range that may be ready by 2011.
The new electric cars generated the usual round of cheerleading from Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm and GM employees, who waved signs at the convention center reading, "We're electric" and "Charged up." (Note to PR department: Keep trying.)
China's BYD as well as Tesla Motors and Fisker Automotive, both startups, also touted all-electric vehicles at the auto show.
But for pinched buyers and struggling automakers, all-electric vehicles are still Never-Never Land stuff. The price of a barrel of oil is down more than $100 from a peak of $147.27 last July, but is certain to rebound with increased demand. Increasing numbers of buyers are therefore looking to proven technology - the gas-electric hybrid.
Toyota rolled out 2 hybrids: the Lexus HS250h, a luxury car that will be offered only as a hybrid, and the third generation of its top-selling Prius. Toyota plans to introduce 10 more hybrids early in the next decade and hopes to sell 1 million gas-electric vehicles in the future.
Toyota now claims about 70% of the hybrid market, a figure that's almost certain to decline as competitors ramp up production. But Toyota is likely to remain the unit leader for the foreseeable future.
Honda (HMC) introduced the Insight, a 4-door hatchback pitched as an "affordable" hybrid. Ford pitched the new Fusion, scheduled to be in showrooms later this year. Hyundai Motor touted its hybrid technology, scheduled to be available in 2010.
Automakers don't expect a turnaround in 2009, because credit remains tight and consumer confidence continues to sag. Ford expects US auto sales to hit 12.5 million this year, down from about 13.2 million in 2008. GM is even gloomier, and expects sales to range from about 10.5 million to 12 million vehicles this year.
Let's hope Congress doesn't get into the business of designing cars by imposing new mandates on the automakers. The hybrids are here now, and all-electric vehicles may be feasible in the near future. With luck, Congress with be content to do what it does best: Spending other people's money.
Nothing contained in this article is intended as a solicitation for business of any kind or for investment in the firm.