By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

The North American International Auto Show in Detroit, that perennial display of motor muscle, finds itself in a serious mood this year.

With every top automaker in the U.S. reporting double-digit sales declines for 2008 (and GM still teetering on the precipice) it is a safe bet that the tenor at times will be more matte gray than Corvette red.

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But for those who seek the light at the end of the tunnel, there is much to celebrate — or at least laud — at this year’s show. And most of it is green, green, green.

“It’s the most important year ever for hybrid vehicles. We’ve had most of our major press conferences completed, and probably 80 percent of the major press conferences all revolved around hybrid and alternative fuel vehicles,” said Doug Fox, co-chair of the 2009 NAIAS, which opens to the public on Saturday.

“That’s what it’s all about,” he said. And it’s not just the press coverage. The automakers in attendance — and that includes pretty much ALL the automakers at what remains the biggest auto show on the continent — are showing everything from cars to batteries to tires that improve energy efficiency.

“There is an incredible revolution underway,” Fox said, citing some key unveilings, such as the first glimpe of the BYD (Build Your Own Dreams) E6 all-electric vehicle from China (pictured top) and the announcement by General Motors that it will open the first domestic lithium-ion battery factory to supply its upcoming all-electric Volt.

The Detroit show does appear replete with eco-events. Michelin will be displaying new more energy-efficient tires, and on Monday announced a design contest for even more efficient tires.

Toyota has brought its environmental darling, the Prius, newly designed for 2010 with better aerodynamics, solar components and higher gas mileage (50 mpg compared with 45 mpg).

Honda will be premiering its 2010 Insight (pictured here), nosing its way back into the hybrid-electric market with estimated 40 to 43 mpg, and expected to be available in the U.S. in April.

“A lot of the excitement used to be about styling and design. This year, it’s really under the hood. That’s where they’re concentrating, on engines, transmissions and batteries,” Fox said, noting that the next step, developing an alternative fuel or battery infrastructure, is also part of the buzz.

At this show, the red carpet for frilly concept cars has been replaced by a green track, literally, to showcase the next new thing.

The Detroit show will help patrons envision the great big, green future by letting them ride in electric cars on an “Eco Experience Track,” a demo driving area with a panoramic “natural background” that aims to simulate a clean emissions jaunt.