By Yi-Wyn Yen
January 9, 2008

By Yi-Wyn Yen

LAS VEGAS – GM CEO Rick Wagoner announced his arrival at the Consumer Electronics Show Tuesday night by rolling up in a silver Chevy Volt. But it was another concept car that Wagoner introduced during his keynote speech that wowed the crowd — the electric-fuel cell hybrid Cadillac Provoq.

In hopes of changing negative perceptions about big American car makers, Wagoner — the first automotive chief executive to speak at CES — used his hour-long presentation to highlight GM’s vision for greener, safer, smarter cars.

Wagoner unveiled the silver Provoq, a zero-emissions protoype designed to have a 300-mile range by using a hydrogen fuel cell to charge a lithium ion battery pack. The car can be charged on a home electrical outlet and its roof sports solar panels to extend battery life. Wagoner did not say when the concept car would go into production, but GM (GM) hopes to deliver fuel-cell cars in three to four years. “With oil hitting $100 a barrel last week… the auto industry can no longer rely exclusively on oil,” he said.

GM is aggressively pushing to change its gas-guzzling image by introducing eight hybrids this year, including the Chevy Tahoe and GMC Yukon SUVs. The Chevy Volt, a battery-powered car whose range is boosted by a small engine that runs on a range of fuels, was unveiled at an auto show last year and is expected to hit showrooms around 2010. Wagoner said GM will continue to push for ethanol-based cars and expects to increase production of energy-efficient cars by 50 percentĀ in the next four years.

Further into the future, Wagoner said he hopes cars will be smart enough to drive themselves. He highlighted a video of a self-driving Chevy Tahoe nicknamed “the Boss” that won a 60-mile DARPA race last year. The Boss will be on display starting Wednesday outside the Las Vegas Convention Center. “Someday you can do your e-mail, watch a video, apply your makeup while commuting to work. You can do all that right now, but imagine if you can do it safely,” Wagoner said.

While self-driving cars may be a thing of the future, car owners won’t have to wait long for car doors that can be locked with with cell phones and for cars that put on the brakes when stolen. GM revamped its 12-year-old OnStar safety and alarm system to slow down a stolen car when it’s being chased by the police. It is also working with Verizon (VZ), Qualcomm (QCOM), and LG on mobile phones that can activate car alarms, lock doors and download driving directions. Said Wagoner: “This has been a massive learning experience for us of understanding where and how the auto and electronic industry intersects.”

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