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The Detroit Auto Show: Where Did the Green Go?
Joel Makower, 8 Jan 07

What to make of the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, from which I've just returned?

The event -- the world's largest auto show -- fills every nook and cranny of the COBO Center's 2.4 million square feet of exhibition space. It's a car lover's dream -- the latest and shiniest new models and concept cars, up close and personal, the scene augmented by testosterone-pounding music and flashing lights. Attractive women stand vapidly around sporty and luxury models, just in case the vehicles themselves aren't titillating enough.

But where was the green? This year, environmentally minded vehicles and innovations seemed few and far between. The well-choreographed and elaborately staged press events focused far more on horsepower and high-technology than on hybrids and hydrogen. "Muscle" was probably the show's most exercised buzzword.

Consider, for example, Toyota, the automotive darling of the eco-crowd. At the company's exhibit last year, it was all about hybrids. This year, Toyota had its three hybrid models on display -- the Camry, Highlander, and iconic Prius -- but they were pushed off to the side, all but lost in the gridlock of more than a dozen sizeable trucks being showcased. Toyota's press extravaganza this year was devoted entirely to its massive, 2007 Tundra pick-up -- "The truck that changes it all" -- which tips the scales at up to 7,200 pounds (equivalent to about two and a half Priuses). The macho machine, we were told, is based on Toyota's "uncanny awareness for the wants and needs of American consumers."

So, have Toyota and the other automakers lost their appetite for the green market?

Hardly. It turns out that green is going mainstream in the sense that it has become so common as to be unworthy, or at least less-worthy, of news, let alone hype. While green vehicles and messaging weren't front and center, they were present in nearly every company's line-up of new and forthcoming vehicles. It just took a little digging to find -- and was often underwhelming once you found it.

Everyone, it seemed, had an environmental story to tell -- a new hybrid, flex-fuel vehicle, fuel-efficient compact, or gas-sipping technology enhancement. But these were largely washed aside by a tsunami of macho trucks, high-horsepower upgrades of bestselling sedans, and midsized "crossover" vehicles -- the SUV-family car combo that has become the industry's fastest-growing vehicle class. With the exception of GM, no other car company staged a press event dedicated to green innovations.

Indeed, it turns out that for the majority of vehicle manufacturers, the greening of vehicles is far more evolution than revolution, a steady stream of incremental changes. Ford technology spokesman Said Deep regaled me with a litany of improvements his company was making: direct-injection fueling technology and six-speed transmissions that allow engines to be downsized and more fuel-efficient while maintaining or enhancing their power; low-rolling-resistance tires that can help squeeze out an extra few miles per gallon; LED headlights and taillights that draw less power. He could have been speaking for Toyota, Chrysler, GM, or any number of other car companies. All appear to be making such improvements as a matter of course.

Some of the more interesting green innovations could be found in vehicle interiors. A couple examples:

  • Lincoln's MKR concept car features "guilt-free" luxury (in the words of the manufacturer) such as chrome-free leather, an oak instrument panel made from recycled wood, mohair carpet, and soy-based seat foam.

  • The GM Volt featured several eco-friendly materials from GE Plastics, such as doors made from a resin derived from discarded water and soda bottles.

    All good stuff, of course, but I was desperately seeking something bold and disruptive -- some breakthrough vehicle that combined mind-boggling fuel efficiency, near-zero emissions, innovative green materials, and sexy styling. GM's Volt and Ford's fantastical Airstream fuel cell car (pictured above) came closest, but both are concept cars, unavailable for purchase. I'm talking about something that I can drive later this year (when the lease runs out on my BMW convertible).

    So, to repeat: what to make of the Detroit show? Is the tank half full or half empty? Should we be pleased with the incremental progress -- the year-over-year growth of hybrid models and fuel-efficient technologies, not to mention the growing number of companies doing such things in the first place? Or should we be concerned at the slow pace of progress, and the absence of any game-changing technology that's ready for market?

    And what about the fact that green is no longer news -- that it's become woven into the fabric of everyday innovations and, therefore, less noteworthy? We've seen this happen in other sectors -- green buildings, for example, where announcements about a construction or remodeling project having achieved LEED certification have become background noise in the marketplace. I've argued before that this lack of newsworthiness is -- well, good news.

    Should we celebrate this mainstreaming of green -- the steady drumbeat of incremental, but non-newsworthy innovations -- or be deeply concerned that by no longer being center stage such things may be too little, too late?

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    Comments

    Joel, did you overhear what dealers were seeking? Is there a sounding-board at the show for dealers to communicate what their customers want in the showroom? (Though I would imagine automakers must have this sort of thing down to a science that is calculated long before such shows.)

    I wonder if it's just easier to build "more of the same" and convince people that this is the only choice rather than researching and re-tooling for something vastly different.

    Where is the disconnect along the line that kept those things you were looking for off the show floor? Is there a heavy somewhere who keeps more innovative technologies from the forefront (i.e. pressure from one party in the whole automotive process, whether it be on the manufacturing end or the petroleum supply end) or is it just a combination of hesitancy on the part of both consumers and manufacturers?

    I would have to say the tank is half empty and draining fast. Our fascination with muscle cars is bewildering. I can walk across town [I'm in the EU] and see almost all compacts or sub-compact vehicles (except for the [LPG] buses, which is how most people in this city go about). This is partially born of economic necessity; however, even the people who can afford large vehicles usually choose not to purchase them. The general attitude seems to be "why would I do that"? Americans seem to be stuck on "why would I not; I can."

    Even if American cannot wean itself from an imbedded highway infrastructure and need for personal vehicles for some years to come, why not start with more sensible vehicles? But, the prevailing attitude seems to be Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!

    That's maybe not so much of a condemnation of the auto industry as a commentary on American purchasing power; obviously, if everyone stopped buying large vehicles, there would be little impetus to build them. Perhaps it is we who are not yet doing enough to educate people about the ingredients of their vehicles. . .what if there were a requirement to distinctly label, on every new vehicle, its carbon footprint. Where did all the materials come from and how much energy was used to make it? (I'm sure someone has suggested this; but maybe we need to lobby for such information more.)

    Or, in lieu of that, maybe a big Surgeon General's warning plastered in the glove box? For years and years, the growth of the cigarette industry was driven by consumer demand; yet that apparently makes the industry no less accountable for the damaging health effects of cigarettes. Should the auto industry look ahead to environmental litigation in the future?


    Posted by: Jason Nicholas on 8 Jan 07

    While I'm all for using more recycled components in everything - automakers are simply using that as a distraction. The materials cost of physically producing vehicles are not their major ecological impact - the real damage is in what that vehicle does over the course of it's life - consume oil and emit greenhouse gasses recklessly.

    Average fuel economy of the Big 6 automakers is worse now than 10 years ago. While fuel efficiency (and in turn, environmental impacts and energy security) are hot topics at the auto show - automakers are trying to distract us with soy-foam seats or futuristic eco-concept cars that will never actually be produced. The technology exists today to bring the average fleet fuel economy up to at least 40 miles per gallon - but automakers keep trying to deceive us with P.R. instead of progress.

    If automakers truly want to be environmental leaders wants to see my support they would:

    • Stop lobbying against rises in fuel economy (CAFÉ) standards
    • Drop the lawsuits against states like California who are trying to regulate greenhouse gases
    • Commit to leading the industry in fuel economy and set fuel economy benchmarks so we can actually hold them accountable and know where they are headed.

    I’ve been working with the Freedom From Oil Campaign to make automakers honestly prioritize fuel economy and move beyond oil – check out what we do at http://www.FreedomFromOil.org


    Posted by: Matt on 8 Jan 07

    In contrast to the family automobile market, heavy duty truck manufacturers have been subject to 3 yearly tightening of emmissions (by government regulation, led by California). The market place that truck fleets work in also means that engine makers have increased fuel economy steadily for a vituous double-whammy effect.

    Because the trucks have to haul at least as much as they did 20 years ago, the horsepower of the engines has if anything gone up, despite emissions targets and increased fuel economy.

    How is it that the truck manufacturers have done this whilst remaining profitable but the automobile makers claim it's impossible?

    Clearly it's because the truck manufacturers are in a weaker position relative to the government but have managed to maintain good working relationships. The US government should stand up to NAFTA and non-NAFTA auto companies.


    Posted by: John Kazer on 9 Jan 07

    Americans seem to be stuck on "why would I not; I can."

    "the prevailing attitude seems to be Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!"

    "uncanny awareness for the wants and needs of American consumers."
    ---------------------------------
    I really believe that until these views and attitudes change the auto makers wont, why should they?
    The 'Green' we see slowly being put into the industry today is just enough to passify a majority of the small percentage of green thinking americans. So when someone does raise the question they can point to a small feature and say 'Here, your Green is right here'.
    Changing the minds and habits of a vast majority of the american people is the real challenge..


    Posted by: Daniel Christianson on 9 Jan 07

    "when the lease runs out on my BMW convertible" ? At which point wouldn't you buy it, rather than replace it? BMW charges a premium price for a 'higher quality' car. Unless your personal situation is changing such that you need to carry more passengers or travel off-road wouldn't it be more environmentally friendly to postpone the upgrade?


    Posted by: George Stewart on 10 Jan 07



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