Scene isn't Green in U.S. Auto Market

20 Feb, 2008 By: Jeffrey Rowe

Regarding the Detroit Big Three's efforts to befriend the Earth, the question seems to be if it will happen, not when.

You would think that by now the so-called Detroit Big Three automakers -- Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler -- would have jumped on the green bandwagon to develop smaller, more fuel-efficient, easier-to-produce vehicles. After all, not everyone wants a vehicle that weighs 6,000 pounds, produces 500 horsepower and foot pounds of torque, and gets 12 miles per gallon of gas.

Ford, GM, and Chrysler do offer a few hybrid models, mainly trucks, SUVs, and crossovers. This is great news for fuel-conscious customers of these larger vehicles, but how long will the market have to wait for a U.S.-manufactured contender to take on the smaller Toyota Prius, Toyota Camry, or Honda Civic hybrids? My advice: Don't hold your breath. The Big Three have a subpar track record in the green arena, and that seems unlikely to change any time soon.

Publicity, Not Profit
As much publicity as hybrid vehicles have received, the attention hasn't exactly translated into huge sales. As a matter of fact, all combined hybrid sales in the United States last year only accounted for a little more than 2% of all new cars and trucks sold, and Toyota, Honda, and Lexus models enjoyed the majority of those sales. However, hybrids accounted for almost 11% of Toyota's U.S. sales last year. Little information is available about how hybrids are selling for the Detroit Big Three. "No word" from Detroit usually means slow sales, and I'm sure that's the case here.

Why hybrids haven't been better sellers is something of a mystery, but is probably directly related to their higher cost compared with conventional models and the payback time required to offset the additional up-front cost. Most potential automotive customers still regard hybrids as a novelty, not yet worthy of serious consideration.

Today's hybrids are but a part of the automotive industry's focus on becoming more green. They follow a string of environmentally friendly attempts that have largely failed to capture the hearts, minds, and wallets of customers. Let's take a brief look at some other recent programs that had high expectations but little tangible return.

Failed Green Efforts
In 1993, the U.S. government and the U.S. automotive industry partnered to establish U.S. leadership in developing and producing affordable, fuel-efficient, low-emissions vehicles: the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles (PNGV). The program involved seven federal agencies, several national laboratories, universities, suppliers, the United States Council for Automotive Research (USCAR), DaimlerChrysler, Ford, and General Motors. The PNGV challenge was to "build a car with up to 80 miles per gallon at the level of performance, utility, and cost of ownership that today's consumers demand."

PNGV researchers identified a number of ways to reach 80 mpg, including reducing vehicle weight, increasing engine efficiency, combining gasoline engines and electric motors in hybrid vehicles, implementing regenerative braking, and using high-efficiency fuel cell power plants . Much of what PNGV promoted were the forerunner technologies used in today's hybrids. Sadly, the government spent billions of dollars for no direct return except to spur interest in successor programs that might prove more promising.

Next up, in 2002, was the U.S. Department of Energy's Freedom CAR (Cooperative Automotive Research) program, which intended to transform the corner gas station into the corner hydrogen station. That program was created to replace PNGV. The Department of Energy and Ford, GM, and DaimlerChrysler created a public-private partnership to develop technologies for hydrogen-powered fuel cell vehicles that theoretically would require no foreign oil and emit no harmful pollutants or greenhouse gases.

Freedom CAR research focused mainly on fuel cell technology and mass production of vehicles powered by hydrogen produced domestically from renewable sources. Other supporting CAR teams were envisioned to work in parallel to develop the hydrogen-delivery system necessary to support a nationwide fleet of next-generation vehicles -- the corner hydrogen stations.

To consumers, the Freedom CAR program promised cheaper and cleaner transportation. "Families will no longer have to factor in the cost of gasoline in their budgets, or in what type of vehicle they buy," said then-Department of Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham. "The gas-guzzler will be a thing of the past." However, as we all know, these words hardly rang true during the program -- or since its demise. The program failed largely because the cost of developing and implementing a hydrogen distribution infrastructure would be too high compared with the short-term return. There's also the issue of the public's negative perception of hydrogen itself -- remember the Hindenburg?

Moving forward, and supposedly building on the Freedom CAR partnership in his 2003 State of the Union Address, President George W. Bush announced the $1.2 billion Hydrogen Fuel Initiative. The initiative aimed to reverse America's growing dependence on foreign oil by developing the technology needed for commercially viable hydrogen-powered fuel cells to power vehicles, homes, and businesses. Through partnerships with the private sector, the President's Hydrogen Fuel Initiative sought to develop hydrogen, fuel cell, and infrastructure technologies needed to make this energy source practical and cost-effective by 2020. The initiative would dramatically improve America's energy security by significantly reducing the need for imported oil, we were told. It was also a key component of our country's clean air and climate change strategies.

It's still a bit early to declare the Hydrogen Fuel Initiative a total failure, but it, like its predecessors, has suffered from a lack of focus, accountability, and tangible results. The Hydrogen Fuel Initiative has also suffered, like its predecessors, from a lack of long-term financial commitment from private industry, and from technical problems with fuel cells -- namely, their questionable performance in cold environments and their requirement for expensive metallic components to make them work efficiently. It’s not that these challenges can’t be met sometime in the future; it’s just that they probably won’t with this program.

Another Challenge Ignored
Given this history of failed government partnerships on green initiatives, you'd think the major automakers would want to get in on something that has a probability of success and positive change, such as the Automotive X-Prize challenge. This major contest with its $10 million prize seeks to create the first 100 mpg car -- about three times the mileage required by government mandate for automotive company fleets by 2020. So who's participating? At this point, mostly small shops -- including Malcolm Bricklin's Visionary Vehicles, Tilting Vehicle Australia, and Valentin Technologies -- but not any one of the Detroit Big Three. If nothing else, wouldn't the major automotive manufacturers want to show off their design and engineering abilities and promote their interest in innovative, sustainable technologies? Of course, there's the fear of losing to a small company with a handful of employees and small pocketful of development funds. But I say, put your egos aside and get to work to meet this challenge, or at least try.

Positive Developments
In all fairness, the automotive manufacturers are making some strides on their own. For example, in January, Ford Motor Company introduced EcoBoost, an engine technology that the company says will deliver better fuel economy on half a million vehicles annually in North America over the next five years.

The EcoBoost family of 4-cylinder and 6-cylinder engines features turbocharged direct-injection technology for as much as 20% better fuel economy, 15% lower CO2 emissions, and driving performance that is reportedly comparable to larger displacement engines with turbocharging and and direct injection technology. Compared with more conventional contemporary hybrids and diesel engines, EcoBoost is a good start, but hardly revolutionary -- just a new spin on existing petroleum-fueled, internal-combustion engines.

GM's Chevrolet Volt, a plug-in extended-range electric vehicle, was introduced as a concept vehicle to much excitement last year. It received so much attention, in fact, that GM seemed destined to rush it into production ahead of any competition. Today, though, you hear less and less about it, so it too may be the victim of mysterious forces that involve financing its enormous development costs, recouping that investment, and addressing the maturity and reliability of its lithium ion batteries. What sounded like a virtual production guarantee appears to be in some degree of doubt today.

Green automotive technologies are too important for too many reasons. There's no room for more excuses about why the inherent challenges can't be overcome. Partnerships that the Detroit Big Three should pursue for this great endeavor could lead to our generation's equivalent of the Manhattan Project or the 1960s Space Race.

So, Detroit Big Three, where is your imagination -- and what's stopping you?

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