11.15.2007 | Too easy to be green?
Ecstasy is all you need
Living in the big machine now …
Now your world is way too fast
Nothing's real and nothing lasts
These lyrics from the Goo Goo Dolls' 2002 release, Gutterflower, serve as pretext to a larger point about the state of the auto industry ahead of this week's Los Angeles Auto Show, not just in America but abroad as well. As German automakers struggle to increase fuel efficiency, America's largest, GM, is celebrating today's pronouncement of its 2007 Chevy Tahoe Hybrid — using a hybrid drive co-developed with its German counterparts — as Green Car of the Year.
Excuse me. Chevy Tahoe? Green? Car?
This effusive article from Reuters praises the Tahoe as "the first full-size hybrid SUV" that gets "21 miles per gallon in the city, the same as a Toyota Camry sedan." 21 miles per gallon? Break out the champagne! We can all go home now.
Even more galling is this gem from GM spokesman Dave Barthmuss:
When you think of a hybrid, you think of a small car that has been built from the ground up to eke out the most miles, but now you can have that kind of system in a large vehicle.
Yes, by all means! Let's throw away any mileage gains that could come from designing a new kind of SUV with efficiency in mind and just throw an electric motor on the existing one. That's progress! (To be fair, GM did make the doors out of aluminum, but most likely only to offset the added weight from the hybrid drive train.)
GM's mild Malibu and Aura hybrids, meanwhile, eke out only small mileage gains (perhaps why GM is advertising them as America's "most affordable" hybrids — they can't win on engineering).
Honda, for its part, is rolling out the first hydrogen fuel cell production car in the middle of next year to a "limited" number of customers in southern California for a bargain $600 per month ("affordable," according to MSNBC — we can only hope they took "relatively speaking" as granted). Good luck finding a filling station!
The Los Angeles Times' Dan Neil takes a longer view, saying that automakers cannot "throw a switch" and turn all their cars into hybrids at once — though that's exactly what GM seems to have done with its Tahoe. And, again according to Neil, automakers have more reason to appear green than just good PR:
Consider the context of this year's auto show. The price of oil is flirting with $100 a barrel. Recent studies suggest that, as the energy demands of emerging giants India and China increase, world oil consumption could rise 55% by 2030. Even oil executives concede we cannot drill or mine enough to satisfy that kind of energy appetite.
Two automakers seem to be headed in the right direction. Ford's CEO, Alan Mulally, talked about reducing vehicle weight as a means to increase fuel efficiency. Toyota, meanwhile, has a concept car with reduced weight instead of added batteries (though its larger image as a green company may be faltering).
On the plus side, automakers are finally waking up to the reality that oil is a finite resource. Their attempts at introducing greener technologies, if self-serving, are about as much as survival as social responsibility. But as they fight higher fuel economy standards at the same time, by and large their green effrontery remains a façade.