Luxury Cadillac brand hints at future of cars

The Cadillac Converj, unveiled at the 2009 Detroit The Cadillac Converj, unveiled at the 2009 Detroit Auto Show, is the concept version of the hybrid ELR model set to begin sales in 2014. Photo Credit: General Motors

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If you want to know where the car is going in the year 2013 and beyond, look to the luxury lineup at the New Year's auto shows.

Luxury cars have always led the way in new technology and advances in safety, not to mention creature comforts.

Systems such as automated air bags, anti-lock brakes, electronic stability control and DVD entertainment systems made their debuts on luxury models before filtering down to the mass market.

Since the computerization of cars began to succeed in the late 1980s (after some frustrating failures), the capability of everyday vehicles has expanded to the point that automakers sometimes are forced to restrain themselves so as not to overwhelm the driver. BMW's use of its multifaceted iDrive system is one example. Introduced in 2001 as way to control the car's climate, audio, navigation and communications systems, the console-mounted dial was criticized as demanding too much attention from the driver, creating a possible distraction from the road. BMW made improvements to the system in 2008.

Just to backtrack a bit, let's give credit where it's due -- government regulation.

The advent of environmental protection brought us devices such as the catalytic converter and electronic regulation of fuel supply to produce greater mileage.

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As the gas shortages that began with the Arab oil embargo dominated the 1970s, car manufacturers began to design small, solid-state circuit boards to control the ignition timing and spark. The devices would typically die within several years, forcing the owner to pay for replacement after baffling many mechanics.

By the 1990s, onboard computers controlled the fuel mixture and timing, and were reliable enough to operate most of the electrical processes of the auto, including climate controls, braking systems and odometer. With navigation systems, advanced climate controls, communications and entertainment devices, the onboard computer has become the most important part of the car's electrical system.

On another regulatory front, government standards gave us safety devices, such as air bags, which have become progressively safer after some early disasters. Today, we have tire pressure monitors on our instrument panels that tell us when a tire is low, a feature that originated in European luxury cars. The new Nissan Altima even produces an audible signal that tells you when you have put enough air in the tire.

Now, back to the future.

Despite the protestations of various automotive mossbacks, the electric car and hybrid versions are becoming increasingly mainstream. A certain segment of the population always seems drawn to innovation, whether the product is a smart phone or a smart car.

In a reverse of the typical trend, the new propulsion systems are moving up market, rather than down. To sell the public on the viability of hybrid and electric power, the makers had to produce cars like the Toyota Prius and Chevrolet Volt at a price that trendy young people could afford. Only the elite performance electrics from Tesla contradicted this strategy.

Now, Cadillac is taking the cue from Volt, and making a primarily electric coupe called the ELR that is making its debut at the 2013 North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

ELR is the production version of Cadillac's Converj, a concept vehicle revealed at the Detroit show in 2009. The ELR will feature the design theme of the Converj while employing an electric propulsion system made up of a T-shaped lithium-ion battery, an electric drive unit, and a four-cylinder engine-generator, the system used in the Volt.

The ELR will use electricity as its primary power source to drive the car without using gasoline or producing tailpipe emissions. When the battery's energy is low, the ELR seamlessly switches to a gasoline-powered electric generator to keep the car going as long as there's fuel in the tank. While the ELR will be assembled at GM's Hamtramck plant in Detroit, the lithium-ion battery will be built at GM's Brownstown Battery Assembly plant in Brownstown, Mich.

Production of the 2014 model is scheduled to begin in late 2013.

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"People will instantly recognize it as a Cadillac by its distinctive, signature look and true-to-concept exterior design," said General Motors North America President Mark Reuss.

Email Richard Williamson at motorfriend(at)sbcglobal.net 

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