Winter Auto Shows Offer Environmental Hope - and Hype

By Cat Lazaroff

LOS ANGELES, California, January 7, 2000 (ENS) - The Sierra Club made history today - it presented the first product award in the conservation groupís 108 year history - to a clean running, highly efficient new passenger car. So automobiles, responsible for much of the lung clogging smog hovering over the nation, must be getting better, right? Not necessarily.

The season for automobile shows is here. In cities across the country this month, automakers are unveiling their newest designs. Some of the concept cars being paraded before the media in Los Angeles and Detroit promise exceptional gas mileage - up to 80 miles to the gallon, in some cases. Others use very little gasoline, pairing traditional gas engines with innovative electric batteries. One even promises to help mop up smog from the air as it is driven.

insight

The new Honda Insight, which the Sierra Club calls the best car on the market in the U.S. (Photo courtesy Honda Motor Co.)
But of all the new so-called green cars displayed in showrooms this month, only one is available for sale. The Honda Insight, recipient of the Sierra Clubís first product award, not only promises better gas mileage and cleaner operation - it delivers, right into the garages of American consumers.

"It is certainly the best car on the market," said Dan Becker, director of Sierra Clubís global warming and energy program.

The Insight, a two passenger hybrid vehicle, combines a small gasoline powered engine with an electric motor to achieve a fuel efficiency of 61 miles to the gallon (mpg) in city driving, and 70 mpg in highway driving. According to EPA tests for model year 2000 vehicles, the Insight beat its nearest competitor by nearly 20 mpg.

Like an electric car, the hybrid produces no pollution from its electric motor. But unlike purely electric vehicles, the Insight never needs to be charged. The carís gas engine generates electricity to run the efficient electric motor, which helps provide power when the car accelerates. The motor is also charged whenever the vehicleís brakes are used, by converting energy usually lost as heat into electricity.

Best of all, Americans can go out and buy one tomorrow.

"This is an award for a real car that real people can buy and use," said Sierra Club executive director Carl Pope, announcing the award at the Los Angeles Auto Show today. "We want people to know that there are environmentally sound alternatives readily available. In this case, Honda built a great car and has committed to marketing the Insight in all 50 states."

What about all those other green cars? What about the GM Precept and the Ford Prodigy, two five person cars that get almost 80 mpg? These two cars, both powered by the combination of a diesel engine and an electric motor, cut fuel consumption by using ultra-light materials like aluminum and plastics.

engine

The Honda Insight uses a duel gasoline-electric engine (Photo courtesy Honda Motor Co.)
But you cannot buy them. Not yet. And maybe not ever.

The Precept and the Prodigy, the products of six years of research and hundreds of millions of dollars, were built to meet a goal of the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles, created in 1993 by President Bill Clinton and auto industry leaders, to build high efficiency technology demonstration cars by 2000.

While they demonstrate technology that could revolutionize the auto industry, these cars are years away from the consumer market, and are unlikely to ever reach showroom floors.

"The Ford and GM announcements are frauds," said Becker. "These are cars that are production prototypes that they have no intention of putting into production."

In fact, the carsí diesel engines would violate federal clean air rules, including the new emissions standards unveiled by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in November. While diesel engines are more efficient than gasoline engines, they produce more nitrogen oxides (NOx) - a major component of smog - as well.

prodigy

The Ford Prodigy's diesel engine would violate new EPA emissions standards (Photo courtesy Ford Motor Co.)
That led GM vice chairman Harry Pearce to tell the Associated Press, "If we are ever going to deliver true environmental benefits with lower emissions .. we've got to convince the federal government to relax the NOx standards."

The national environmental group Clean Air Trust says that makes GM its "Clean Air Villain of the Month" for January. "At least GM has a consistent track record when it comes to blowing smoke about environmental standards," the groupís website states.

"In the 1950s and 1960s GM sparked efforts to suppress emission control technology. The company opposed the 1970 Clean Air Act, which set national tailpipe pollution standards. GM revved up the lobbying engine in the 1970s and 1980s in an effort to weaken those standards. In the 1990s it tried to block Northeastern states from adopting stricter California pollution standards, and put the pedal to the metal in an unsuccessful attempt to prevent California from toughening its standards. GM also has tried to put the brakes on stricter national health standards for smog and soot," the Clean Air Trust writes.

This month, GM issued its sixth Environmental, Health and Safety report, titled "Steps Toward Sustainability," in which it describes its environmental, social and economic objectives and practices in working toward sustainable development. "Sustainability is a management framework that drives continuous improvement in GM's daily business," GM claims.

"This report demonstrates that we recognize the importance of public accountability," said Dennis Minano, GM vice president and chief environmental officer. "We believe that one of the most valuable ways of providing reliable information to the public is through a corporate environmental report such as this, one that clearly states our objectives, highlights our progress and acknowledges the challenges we face." The report is available at: www.gm.com/ehsreport.

Among the environmental achievements the report presents is GMís adoption of ISO 14001 standards for all its suppliers, and for itself. ISO 14001 is an international environmental standard under which independent auditors evaluate environmental processes and system performance. In September 1999, GM announced it will require its suppliers to certify the implementation of environmental management systems in their operations by the end of 2002.

precept

The GM Precept, a hybrid concept car being introduced next week at the Detroit auto show (Photo courtesy General Motors)
"This requirement further enhances our partnership with our suppliers and is a natural step toward our drive to environmental stewardship," said Dennis Minano, GM vice president for Environment & Energy, and the company's chief environmental officer.

GM was one of the first automakers to require ISO 14001 certification for suppliers. Ford also announced last September it would require suppliers to certify at least one manufacturing site to ISO 14001 by the end of 2001 and all manufacturing sites shipping products to Ford by July 1, 2003. The requirement followed an announcement in December 1998 when Ford became the first automotive company to certify its plants around the world under ISO 14001 - 140 manufacturing facilities in 26 countries.

"This requirement reinforces Ford's commitment to the environment," said Carlos Mazzorin, group vice president of purchasing and Ford of Mexico. "We have extended that commitment to thousands of other companies - exponentially increasing the benefits of this rigorous environmental certification."

The new environmental certification commitments by Ford and GM are a sign that automakers may be giving a higher priority to environmental considerations. Another signal came Thursday, when Germany's DaimlerChrysler AG announced the company is leaving the Global Climate Coalition (GCC), a group that opposes moves to combat global warming.

"Withdrawing from the GCC is a first and very important step for DaimlerChrysler," said Becker. "DaimlerChryslerís decision to follow BP/Amoco, Shell Oil and Ford sounds the death knell for the Ďjust say noí caucus on global warming."

"With new scientific evidence of global warming emerging daily, it is excellent news that the Global Climate Coalition is losing its most prominent members," Becker continued. "We call on General Motors to join Ford and DaimlerChrysler at the exit."

Those three automakers comprise the Big Three of the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles. U.S. taxpayers have spent more than $1 billion on automotive research through the Departments of Commerce and Energy and several national research laboratories. The three auto giants are also spending $800 million a year on supercar research, the industry estimates.

Yet, so far, none of these automakers has managed to fulfill the promise of that initiative and bring a successful supercar - a clean running, efficient passenger vehicle of the future - to market.

ev1

The EV1, GM's electric car, may have been hampered from reaching a wider market by its charging cord (Photo courtesy General Motors)
GMís EV1, a purely electric car sold mostly in California, has had limited success due to its short range before needing a recharge. "Because they have to be tethered to a cord, they have limited potential in the mass market," Becker points out. In December, the "Chicago Tribune" reported that GM is planning to suspend production of the EV1 at its Flint, Michigan plant due to flagging interest in the vehicle. If interest revives, the company said it may reinstate production.

At the same Michigan plant, GM is also ending production of two of its subcompact models - among the most fuel efficient cars built by GM - in favor of increased assembly of the El Dorado, a large, low mpg luxury vehicle.

"This is a great way to start the new year, GM proving its forward vision," commented John White, a Sierra Club lobbyist based in California, where public charging facilities for electric cars like the EV1 are increasingly available.

A new quick charging system for electric vehicles will allow hundreds of thousands of air travelers to Los Angeles to experience electric vehicle technology for the first time starting this month when the first 10 DaimlerChrysler Electric Powered Interurban Commuter (EPIC) minivans join the fleet of Xpress Shuttle.

minivan

New electric minivan will move passengers around LAX. (Photo courtesy DaimlerChrysler)
The batteries can be fast-charged in about 30 minutes, so the minivans can stay on the road up to 16 hours a day. A traditional charger delivers six to seven kilowatts and recharges an electric vehicle in five to seven hours. The EPIC fast-charger operates at 60-150 kilowatts and has the minivan back at full charge within half an hour.

This fast-charge capability is unique to DaimlerChrysler, said C. Fred Roberts, DaimlerChrysler senior manager of the vehicle development team EPIC.

The Honda Insight proves that a marketable fuel efficient passenger car can be built. In June, it will be joined by the Toyota Prius, a five passenger hybrid vehicle which gets more than 60 mpg. The Prius has been on sale in Japan for three years, where it is so popular that the company had to build a new production facility to keep up with demand. So why are American companies not following suit?

"Lethargy and backward thinking are keeping these technologies from making it to the market," Becker said. "Even in countries with more expensive gas, there arenít that many more clean cars being sold, so its not the price of gas," as some industry representatives have claimed.

"I canít really understand why the auto industry is so recalcitrant," Becker concluded. "Its really pretty shocking."

insight body

The Insight's lightweight aluminum body, like those of Ford and GM's concept cars, helps increase fuel efficiency (Photo courtesy Honda Motor Co.)
The real purpose of the Sierra Clubís award to the Insight is to bring the publicís attention to the supercars already available. "If the American people buy this car, then all the other auto manufacturers will have to make them," Becker said.

In the months and years to come, the "Sierra Club Award for Excellence in Environmental Engineering" will continue to inform the public about advances in technology which make vehicles more environmentally sound. The award will be presented when a company develops and mass markets a vehicle that represents a substantial environmental improvement over vehicles of similar size. The award goes to the product - not the company.

"Since we attack auto companies when they do wrong, we thought it was important to applaud one that did right," said Becker.

With luck, Becker said, the Big Three will be encouraged to use the technology they have spent so many years and so many millions to create to build a car that consumers can actually buy.

"The technology exists," Becker said. "If you use it you will save the planet. If you donít use it you will destroy the planet. Itís very simple."