GM kicked off the recent North American International Auto Show in Detroit by, among other things, introducing a new Cadillac. Once the fanfare had died down, observers could hear a distinct creaking as the turntable display supporting the Caddy labored to move its load.

This little anecdote seemed to set the tone for Detroit’s premier automotive showcase event. Automakers put up a confident demeanor on stage as they described their plans and new models. Away from the lights and cameras, they were more candid about problems. One Chrysler employee described morale there, perhaps euphemistically, as “hopeful.” After rounds of layoffs and attrition, the people left standing at the automaker are “a scrappy bunch who aren’t quitters,” she said.

But Detroit’s Tier One suppliers sounded more fatalistic. “We are all waiting for the other shoe to drop,” one engineer told me, shaking his head. Their feeling is that economic conditions are destined to get far worse before they get better.

But enough with the negativity. There were positive trends at this lessglitzy version of the auto-industry’s confab. One was that ethanol and E85 have been removed from automakers’ official vocabulary, at least as far as I could tell. This was in marked contrast to last year, when even Ferrari showed a car able to burn the stuff. Veteran show-goers could easily come away thinking the ethanol love-fest of 2008 must have just been a bad dream.

On this score, automakers seemed to have regained their senses. It is evident their engineers aren’t done boosting gas mileage through improved engine efficiency. This strategy was a major theme in a number of booths. Direct fuel-injection technology will raise mpg figures on several new models. Other tweaks are in the wings that are largely unappreciated outside of technical conferences put on by the Society of Automotive Engineers.

Yet it probably isn’t sub-$2/gallon gas alone that made automakers back away from ethanol. Truth is, they have made progress on electric vehicles that apparently surprises even a few industry cheerleaders. The 2010 debut for a GM plug-in hybrid no longer seems like a pipe dream.

And you can detect a changing attitude about power sources among auto engineers. One indication: Internal-combustion engines in these advanced vehicles are now referred to not as engines but as “range extenders,” there to power the electric motor if the batteries run low on juice.

It’s been suggested, though, that lithium-supply problems could thwart these plans. Some economists claim lithium can’t be mined economically or in sufficient volumes to support a worldwide fleet of cars powered by hightech lithium-ion batteries. But automakers I spoke with pooh-poohed this idea.

Finally, some carmakers promoted diesels at the show as a means of bettering fuel efficiency. I am not sure that’s a good thing. To sufficiently squelch NOx emissions, next-generation clean diesels inject urea solution into the exhaust. The urea sits in its own refillable reservoir equipped with a heater to prevent freezing in cold weather. Forget to refill the urea reservoir and the vehicle won’t work.

At least to my ear, the whole thing sounds too complicated and prone to hiccups.

— Leland Teschler, Editor