Automakers are seeing the future, and increasingly it’s more high voltage than high octane.

At this year’s North American International Auto Show in Detroit, just under the sheet metal and hoods of new models, it was apparent that electrification is becoming a reality—especially with the introduction of 48-volt mild hybrids in models coming in the next year.

For months now, companies have been promising more “electrified” models, turning their business plans into a kind of battery-powered arms race.

Ford and GM are among car companies worldwide that are making proclamations about investing huge sums of money into hybrid, plug-in, or fully electric models.

That doesn’t mean you’ll have to give up your gasoline-powered car or SUV—at least not yet. When these auto executives talk about electrification, they don’t just mean cars like the Chevrolet Bolt or Tesla’s pricey luxury models. They mean a mix of models that are either entirely powered by batteries (think Tesla Model 3), gas-electric hybrids (Toyota Prius), plug-in hybrid or range extender vehicles (Chevy Volt) and, increasingly, cars called “mild hybrids."

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Several very different vehicles coming in the next year will use a form of mild hybridization called 48-volt technology: Audi A7 and A8, Jeep Wrangler, Ram 1500, and the Mercedes-AMG53 models (CLS, E-class Coupe/Convertible).

These systems don't just use bigger batteries, said Jose Avila, an executive board member with Continental, one of Europe’s biggest parts suppliers. They’re more like cost-effective mini-hybrids that capture a few of the common features that people are familiar with on cars like the Prius, such as regenerative braking. They convert other functions of the car from mechanical to electric power.

“You get significant fuel-economy benefit at a fraction of the cost” of a more complex hybrid system, such as the one in the Prius, Avila said. “It’s a decent payback.”

Continental predicts that about half of the hybrids sold in 2025 will be mild-hybrid, 48-volt systems, Avila said.

Delphi Technologies, a U.S.-based parts supplier, is combining its 48-volt architecture with a cylinder deactivation device. Unlike older versions of cylinder deactivation, this one uses sophisticated algorithms that work with smaller four-cylinder engines.

The combination gives gasoline engines diesel-like performance—25 percent better fuel economy for about $1,500. That compares with $2,000 added up-front costs for a diesel engine. (In our experience at the CR test track, the discrepancy could be even greater. The Buick Lacrosse’s sticker price went down after adding eAssist in 2018; the diesel version of the Chevy Cruze cost almost $4,000 more.) Electronic boosting of the engine is also far cleaner than diesel.

Automakers are trying to keep up with Tesla. They’re also responding to cities and countries in Europe adding restrictions to diesel and gasoline engines due to air-pollution concerns. Luxury automakers are mixing electric components into their high-performance models. At the Detroit auto show, BMW is showing the refresh of its i8 plug-in. It’s a high-performance three-cylinder car with a high-voltage lithium-ion battery-powered motor that produces a combined 374 horsepower. Top speed on electric power alone is 75 mph, BMW says.

That’s not counting the flashier models vying to capture attention in the all-electric space, like Byton, a new China-based automaker that’s promising a $45,000 starting price for an SUV with a range of more than 300 miles, or Fisker, which is promising to be back in U.S. showrooms in two years with a $120,000 luxury sedan that will have more than 400 miles of range and a quick-charging technology that can add 120 miles of range in 9 minutes.

If the automakers live up to their pledges, there will be more full-electric models coming to the U.S., too.

Ford said this week that it will spend $11 billion on electrified vehicles by 2022, including 16 new full battery-electric models. Its plans include a gas-electric hybrid version of its cornerstone pickup, the F-150, as well as a high-performance all-electric supercar, which it’s calling the Mach 1.

That comes just a few weeks after GM's CEO, Mary Barra, said the automaker is committed to an all-electric future, with 20 new models by 2022. Two of those will be battery-electric crossovers based on the Chevy Bolt in the next 18 months.

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