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Washington & SF Car Journalists Chronicle the Greening of US Automakers
Dec 6, 2006 (From the CalCars-News archive)
This posting originally appeared at CalCars-News, our newsletter of breaking CalCars and plug-in hybrid news. View the original posting here.
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The San Francisco Chronicle's Michael Taylor has been including the environmental aspects of cars for some time. Warren Brown is a more mainstream automotive reporter who's been at the Washington Post since 1982. We can see them evolving -- both in the measuring sticks they use for car features and benefits and their appreciation for larger societal issues.

Green, the Color of Survival
By Warren Brown
Washington Post Column
Sunday, December 3, 2006; G02

LOS ANGELES: You might have read or seen news reports from here last week saying that the world's car companies are going green for the 100th anniversary of the Los Angeles Auto Show.

The news reports are right and wrong.

The car companies are going green, with practically every major automaker here showing off or promising to build energy-efficient vehicles powered by electricity, ethanol, hydrogen, low-sulfur diesel, biodiesel, compressed natural gas, propane or myriad combinations thereof.

But the reports are wrong for suggesting that all of this is being done for image, that it is somehow a public relations ruse meant to placate consumers who are passionately committed to energy conservation and who, thus, are desperate for new fuel-efficient technologies.

Most American consumers are pocketbook activists. They are desperate for fuel efficiency only when gasoline prices rise. When those prices fall, they become horsepower recidivists, rapidly returning to their fuel-wasting ways by buying the biggest vehicles with the biggest engines, regardless of whether they actually need them.

The entire American economic structure is wedded to that kind of careless greed. One has to look no farther than Los Angeles, a sprawling metropolis of highways leading to housing developments covering acres -- forcing rainfall, when it comes, to flow in often ruinous directions.

The car companies did not dictate that lifestyle. American consumers chose it, just as many of them, even at home in the Washington metropolitan area, repeatedly are choosing to buy and build energy-consuming mini-mansions many highway miles away from their workplaces -- which, of course, means that most of those people are hopping into cars and trucks, often big cars and trucks carrying one person each, to get to wherever it is they think they have to go.

Again, it is American consumers, acting of their own free will, who are making those choices. No evil force is controlling their minds. No one is forcing them at gunpoint to march into real estate offices to buy the biggest house, or into an automobile dealership to buy the biggest car or truck. No one is pushing them to do inexplicably odd things such as wasting human energy waiting outside of a store to buy an electronic game that consumed energy in production and will consume more in operation. They are doing all of those things of their own volition.

That being the case, why did every major car company here feel compelled to tell the international automotive media during the Los Angeles show's media preview days that it is investing billions of dollars in the development of new alternatively fueled vehicles?

It's simple.

It's business.

The car companies have no choice.

Unlike many of the American consumers they supposedly are trying to impress, the car companies have studied and accepted the global realities of oil. To wit: The world is demanding more of the stuff, but there is less of it to go around.

That means, sooner or later, there will not be enough of it for everybody, certainly not enough to fuel the growing number of cars and trucks around the world. That means many car companies could go out of business if there is no way to affordably fuel the cars and trucks they make.

In short, the "green" concern here has less to do with environmental image building than it has to do with continued cash flow.

It is for this reason that I applaud the honesty of G. Richard Wagoner Jr., the chairman and chief executive of General Motors, the world's largest car company, for using the Los Angeles show to announce GM's bold, new multibillion-dollar plan to produce and sell the world's largest fleet of electric cars. Wagoner minced no words.

Pressures on the world's oil resources have created "serious concerns about energy supply, energy availability, sustainable growth, the environment, and even national security," he said. And those "serious concerns" translate into real concerns about the continued existence of the automobile industry itself, he said.

As a result, he said, GM is reinvesting in electric vehicles that include plug-in hybrids that can run on electricity and gasoline; dual-mode, self-contained hybrids that use no electric cords, but that can use electricity for city runs and light-load highway runs, and switch to compressed natural gas or some other fuel for full-load highway runs; and hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles that use hydrogen to generate the electricity that provides drive power.

And there is a possibility that GM will team up with DaimlerChrysler to use that German company's advanced, high-mileage, clean-burning BlueTec diesel technology for many of its larger cars and trucks.

GM will do those things because BMW, DaimlerChrysler, Toyota, Honda, Nissan, Hyundai and the emerging car companies in China and India will do those things, because they all know a truth that still too many American consumers, wedded to the childish notion of eternally cheap gasoline, refuse to accept: The world is running low on oil.

Without the intervention of alternative fuel technologies, no oil means no cars or trucks. No cars or trucks mean no automotive industry, along with all of the resulting negative economic effects of that industry's demise.

It's painfully simple. "Going green" has not much to do with altruism. It has little to do with image. It has everything to do with staying in business.

Glimpse the future
At L.A. megashow, automakers paint evolution in shades of green
Michael Taylor, Chronicle Auto Editor
Sunday, December 3, 2006, page J-1­cgi-bin/­article.cgi?file=/­c/­a/­2006/­12/­03/­MTGRVMNRMS1.DTL

(12-03) 04:00 PST Los Angeles -- Outside the big convention center here, home to the 100th annual Los Angeles Auto Show, are a bunch of alternative-fuel vehicles, and the world's automotive press is being treated to ride-and-drives. Inside, there are press conferences and keynote speeches about life beyond oil.

One quick look at this big auto show - more than 1,000 cars from nearly 50 automakers - and you'd think the age of oil had disappeared and been replaced by the wondrous new era of whisper-quiet cars powered by ethanol, electricity, fuel cells, clean diesel, and, perhaps, a hybrid of some or an amalgam of all.

Not quite, but it was clear from a couple of days at the sprawling convention center that this was the automakers' message to the world. It's time for a change, time to work on the future. Not a new message exactly, but one they were certainly drumming home.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger -- he of Hummer and Harley fame -- appeared before the 4,000 journalists from all over the world Thursday morning and orchestrated the unveiling of five eco-friendly cars from Honda, Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Chevrolet and the Bay Area's nascent Tesla Motors (the superfast, super-expensive, all-electric sports car based on the Lotus Elise).

"We challenged the car companies to innovate, to think beyond gasoline and to deliver cleaner, more-efficient cars," Schwarzenegger said. "These cars are the future of the automobile industry, and I know that they are the future for California because we have taken the lead in environmental protection and promoting alternative fuels."

A day earlier, Rick Wagoner, chairman and CEO of General Motors, made an equally eco-friendly speech, pointing out that "it is highly unlikely that oil alone is going to supply all the world's rapidly growing automotive energy requirements," and adding that GM is exploring all the options that nearly every other automaker is exploring. He conceded that gasoline and diesel will "continue to be the principal automotive fuel source for some time" -- viz. the first car you run into at the auto show's Cadillac exhibit, after the lavender convertible, was a $46,045 Cadillac SRX SUV that gets 16 and 24 mpg. And the SUV near it, an Escalade, gets 13 and 20.

The automakers all know we are in an age of transition. As they try to predict the dominant power for motor vehicles in the future, they're all a bit like the guy who wants to hedge his bets, check out the entire field before committing himself. Some, like Toyota, are betting on hybrids -- and they're encouraged by the success of the Prius. Others, like Honda, are betting on both hybrid and fuel cell (viz. their new FCX fuel cell car, which they say will be in production in two years).

In a sense, it's the dawn of a new age for cars, and industry insiders look at it with a combination of fascination and the realistic view that much of this is dictated by the industry's thorough public relations machine.

Ultimately, though, everyone in the auto business recognizes, as Wagoner pointed out, that if it comes down to some sort of electricity that ends up powering cars (and that's already begun, with hybrid gasoline-electric cars) the big problem is finding a suitable long-lasting battery -- one that fits in the car, is impervious to temperature extremes and will go much farther on a charge.

"I agree with (Wagoner) that battery technology is the problem," said Dave Power, founder of the marketing research firm, J.D. Power & Associates. "He says they want to keep their options open, working with several battery companies. But he didn't put any time frame on this. There are so many 'ifs.' "

Asked to predict the next 20 years, he said, simply, "There will be more and more breakthroughs." But Power's vice president, Charlie Vogelheim, said, "Realistically, fuel-cell-powered cars could take up to 50 years."

Wagoner, who heads the world's largest car company, has taken his share of knocks for running a firm that loses money faster than a Corvette covers the quarter-mile, and this week was no exception. The minute he had finished his speech, a man dressed in a suit and tie strode onstage, unfurled a proclamation and seemed to be about to give it to Wagoner.

For a moment, it all look scripted. But the scroll, to be signed by Wagoner, said he pledged "to make GM the most fuel-efficient automobile company in the world by 2010." The man in the suit was Matt Leonard, from San Francisco's Rainforest Action Network, and by the time his scroll was visible to the TV cameras, security agents were hustling him off stage. Wagoner declined to sign.

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