Photograph by Bill Pugliano, Getty

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Chevrolet unveiled electric car models, including a lighter version of its Volt (above), and the Bolt, its new electric vehicle that the automaker says will have a longer driving range than similar cars on the market.

Photograph by Bill Pugliano, Getty

5 Energy Innovations Dazzle at Detroit Auto Show

New cars and technologies debut that promise greater fuel efficiency.

Vehicles in the future will be lighter, able to drive themselves, and run longer on a single battery charge, based on models in the spotlight at this year's North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

The innovations show an auto industry in energy flux. With electric cars that can travel 200 miles between charges, trucks made of lighter material that boost fuel efficiency, and advances in self-driving vehicles, the picture of road travel on display suggests a world of ever decreasing fuel use even as U.S. gasoline prices hit six-year lows.

The auto extravaganza at the Cobo Center features both legacy automakers and California-based electric vehicle maker Tesla Motors, which cannot operate retail stores in Michigan because of dealership franchise rules.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk, in his first appearance at the show in two years, said his company's upcoming Model 3 car and its Model X SUV will boost annual sales to 500,000 units by 2020—up from fewer than 35,000 of its only current model, the luxury Model S sedan. (See related story: "Tesla Motors' Success Gives Electric Car Market a Charge")

Electric cars are hardly the exclusive domain of upstarts and outsiders these days. General Motors, too, has its eye on a broader EV market. The automaker announced plans to produce a new, all-electric hatchback, the Chevrolet Bolt, in 2017—the same year that Tesla's similarly priced Model 3 is expected to enter the market. Bolt prices will start at $30,000.

Here's a look at key innovations and introductions at the Detroit Auto Show that could shape the energy needs and environmental impact of cars in the future.

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Ford's best-selling F150 has a lighter, aluminum chassis that aims to boost its fuel efficiency.

1. Nips and tucks for greater fuel efficiency and more practical plug-ins. Sometimes, even at an event marked by glitz and fantasy, it's what's inside that counts. That's the case with Ford's EcoBoost engine technology, an efficiency-minded combination of turbocharging and fuel injection that the company says will be available in every new Ford car and truck sold in North America this year.

General Motors, meanwhile, has shaved 200 pounds off the curb weight of its Chevy Volt, helping the latest version of this plug-in hybrid vehicle go 30 percent, or 50 miles, farther on a single battery charge before its small gas engine kicks in.

2. Electric Vehicles: Lower prices, longer range. In unveiling the Bolt, General Motors envisions a fully electric vehicle capable of traveling 200 miles between charges, compared with fewer than a hundred miles for most plug-in cars on the road today. Industry watchers say Bolt's relatively low price will create serious competition for Tesla in the race to produce a practical and affordable EV for mainstream car buyers.

Musk welcomed the Bolt concept. "I don't see it as a competitive threat," he said, "because I think all cars will go electric." Tesla's plans for an affordable Model 3 rely heavily on the success of the company's "gigafactory," a five-billion-dollar battery plant in Nevada that is meant to drive down battery costs. "If it doesn't, I should definitely be fired," Musk said last week.

3. Aluminum's big test. So long steel, hello aluminum—at least in the best-selling F-150 pickup truck. Ford swapped out steel for aluminum in the body of its latest F-150, helping to cut about 700 pounds and enable an estimated 26 miles to the gallon—while adding cost and potentially challenging ideas of toughness. (See related story: "10 Energy Breakthroughs of 2014 That Could Change Your Life")

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Honda kept the dream of hydrogen-powered cars alive with its FCV concept car, which it plans to sell in Japan next year.

The truck won the North American Truck of the Year award last week, but Ford says aluminum is unlikely to take over its full lineup anytime soon.

"One of the big benefits you get from light weighting," Ford president Joe Hinrichs said last week in a speech, is that "you can tow more and haul more." Truck buyers, he said, "will pay for more capability, car buyers will pay for better fuel economy, but there's other ways to get fuel economy in a car without the need to provide more capability."

4. Moving toward self-driving cars. Fully autonomous vehicles, which hold the promise of  reducing accidents and boosting fuel efficiency, remain years away from mainstream availability. Still, car companies in Detroit are sharing their latest visions for that technology.

General Motors announced that its 2016 Cadillac sedan will include a system that keeps the car in its lane and automates both braking and acceleration. By 2017, the company plans to offer other models that can communicate speed and location data with other vehicles.

Mercedes-Benz showed a more long-term vision, unveiling a concept for a self-driving car that looks more like a swanky lounge on wheels. The U.S. Army showed off a self-driving electric transport shuttle called the Aribo, and China's Guangzhou Automobile Group displayed an electric autonomous concept vehicle called the Witstar.

5. Fuel cells press on. Fuel cell vehicles (FCV) are not yet taking over roadways, but automakers continue to nudge the technology toward pragmatism. (See related story: "Fuel Cells Power Up: Three Surprising Places Where Hydrogen Energy Is Working")

Honda unveiled its latest fuel cell concept, a five-seat model that can refuel in three minutes when hydrogen is dispensed at the pressure typical for still hard-to-find filling stations and can travel up to 300 miles, compared with about 240 miles for Honda's previous fuel cell model. The company plans to begin selling the car in Japan next year.

The story is part of a special series that explores energy issues. For more, visit The Great Energy Challenge.