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Electric, autonomous vehicles featured at Tampa auto show

TAMPA — The two biggest trends in the automotive space are ones you’ve likely heard of: electric vehicles and autonomous cars.

Both will feature prominently at the Tampa Bay International Auto Show today through Sunday. The event at the Tampa Convention Center showcases two floors of the latest vehicles from major manufacturers from Hyundai and Chevrolet to Infiniti and Cadillac.

This year, vehicles with varying degrees of electric power are in abundance, following an industrywide trend.

"We’re still at the very beginning of that wave that’s coming," said Evan Hirsh, a principal at PricewaterhouseCoopers focusing on the auto industry. "Once it happens, it’s going to be a tsunami."

That wave has already arrived in Tampa Bay. The Florida Public Service Commission held its first electric vehicle roundtable last month to discuss how to make charging stations more available.

The tide is turning in favor of electric vehicles because of a combination of cost and regulation. Manufacturers are constrained by increasingly stringent laws that require vehicles to be more energy-efficient. And as the cost of electric vehicle technology comes down, manufacturers can produce more of them. Consumers, too, catch a break on cost when it comes to fuel savings.

"And an electric car in its own way can actually be more fun," said Tom Voelk, an automotive writer.

The fun comes from better handling because of the placement of the battery. Some manufacturers are moving the battery — which is often very heavy — to the bottom of the car, which lowers its center of gravity. This, Voelk said, allows for better handling, especially around tight turns.

Many cars that will be on display are the increasingly popular plug-in electric hybrid vehicles, which can be charged by being plugged into a power source. These can drive a certain distance on a charge before they need to use gas.

But don’t expect everyone to be driving electric vehicles by next year. For electric vehicles to become more widespread, the cost of the batteries needs to come down.

"The dominant constraining factor will be the cost of the batteries," Hirsh said.

Cars with autonomous features, too, are gaining popularity. Earlier this week, the city of Tampa and the Tampa Hills-
borough Expressway Authority held the fifth annual Florida Automated Vehicles Summit.

While totally self-driving cars are still a ways off, smaller versions of autonomy are popping up in the latest models, such as cars with sensors that make the car brake to avoid hitting another vehicle or cars that steer to allow drivers to take their hands off the wheel for a few moments.

For consumers in the market for a new vehicle, now is a fairly good time to buy, Hirsh said. As the year wraps up, dealers and manufacturers are trying to get rid of the rest of their stock to make room for next year’s models.

Contact Malena Carollo at [email protected] or (727) 892-2249. Follow @malenacarollo on Twitter.

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