Electric cars vs. suburban assault vehicles

Can Henry Ford's great-grandson win over the environmental movement?


Jim Motavalli
April 14, 1999 9:18PM (UTC)

For environmentalists, the automobile has served as a symbol of general planetary destruction since the
movement rose to prominence in the 1960s. But now, nearly 100 years
after Henry Ford founded the Ford Motor Co., its new chairman is trying to bridge
the gap between his industry and green activists, under the skeptical
eyes of both Ford shareholders and environmentalists.

The chairman is none other than Bill Ford, Henry's great-grandson. Seeking a diplomatic coup ` la Nixon's
trip to China, Ford has used the power of his family name to gain some
leeway with automotive purists and extend an olive branch of sorts to
environmentalists. Ford made waves at a speech in Dearborn, Mich.,
last year when he vowed to make Ford "the world's most environmentally
friendly automaker." The world's second-largest car manufacturer has
already made its sport-utility vehicles burn cleaner than federal
standards. Ford has purchased a controlling interest in a Norwegian
electric car maker, and plans to produce the small plastic-bodied
electric car for the U.S. market by 2003. The new chairman also made
waves in a recent Newsweek piece in which he mused in print about a day
when "a large portion of society is going to be driving alternative-fuel
vehicles."

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Those seemingly innocuous steps have alarmed some financial analysts,
who fear, as the New York Times put it, "that the scion of a billionaire
family could put environmental causes ahead of profits and undermine the
industry's traditionally united front against pressures from
environmental groups."

But Ford's overtures of peace toward environmentalists may be a
harbinger of change throughout the industry. Carmakers are joining in
international alliances that will spend billions of dollars developing
highly efficient fuel-cell engines, which run on hydrogen and whose only
byproduct is drinkable water. While this fuel-cell technology
is still years away from being commercially viable,
Toyota and Honda are planning to introduce hybrid gasoline and electric powered cars that get up to 70 miles to the gallon into the U.S. market by the end of the year.

While promises of a green tomorrow abound, automakers, including
Ford, continue to make concessions to those who count driving cars with
poor fuel efficiency as among the inalienable rights referenced by
Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence. Earlier this year, Ford
rolled out the new four-ton Ford Excursion. Priced at over $45,000, the
19-foot truck gets only 12 miles to the gallon, and is expected to be a
serious player in the ongoing game of one-upmanship that continues to
draw soccer moms and suburban warriors to ever larger gas-guzzling
SUVs. The Excursion is expected to mean big bucks for Ford, with a
profit margin as high as $15,000 per truck.

The introduction of the Excursion brought an abrupt end to the warm,
fuzzy signs Bill Ford had been giving to environmental groups. In a sign of
just how precarious this new alliance is, Dan Becker, the Sierra Club's
director of global warming and energy programs, wasted little time in
firing back at the quasi-environmentalism practiced by Ford.

Becker called the Excursion a "suburban assault vehicle" and "a
rolling ad for improving auto pollution standards." Frank O'Donnell,
executive director of the Clean Air Trust, took the criticism a step
further, charging that "the Excursion undercuts the illusion of Ford as
a green company."

As environmentalists step up their attack on SUVs, car enthusiasts have come out swinging. The pages of the nation's leading auto magazines have featured the likes of P.J. O'Rourke launching an assault on "the green weenies" who want SUVs off the road. "They have gasoline in their veins," responded Dick Thompson, a manager at General Motors Advanced
Technology Vehicles, of the car enthusiasts. "They're not interested in electric vehicles, and don't see much of a future for them. These are
the same guys who resisted the move to automatic transmissions. They're good car guys, but they don't seem able to move on."

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Still, environmentalists continue to rail against what they call the auto manufacturers' schizophrenia, a criticism not limited to Ford.
While car companies wheel out alternative fuel vehicles like Mercedes' new emission-free NECAR 4, behind the scenes, automobile manufacturers still flex their sizable political muscle to push for more lenient environmental standards -- hiding behind trade groups like the now-defunct American Automobile Manufacturers Association (AAMA), which lobbied Congress against tougher tailpipe and fuel economy standards. AAMA, working with the large oil companies, also spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on a widely successful mission to defeat what it regarded as onerous electric-car mandates in California. The California
mandate would have required that 2 percent of all cars sold in California in 1998 be zero-emissions, meaning battery-operated electric vehicles.
The modified regulation pushed that date back to 2003 and loosened the zero-emissions provision.

"There has never been anything in American history of similar government interference in the supply side of a major industry," said a rather dramatic AAMA report about the California rules. Other industry-funded, anti-green groups like the Global Climate Coalition dole out criticisms of global warming theory, and in the words of one
environmentalist, "pull down their zippers and relieve themselves" on global environmental standards reached in Kyoto, Japan, in 1997.

Meanwhile, the perception many auto companies have of environmental groups was summed up by Fred Heiler, a spokesman for Mercedes-Benz. "I
don't think we get a fair shake from them at all," Heiler said. "They have an irrational aversion to giving companies, particularly larger
companies, their rightful credit. Maybe it's the cross corporate America has to bear because of its past deeds. Certainly they should give a
fresh look at what we're doing, because it's considerable."

But the wall of distrust raised during the ongoing cold war between the two sides will not fall overnight. Environmentalists
still maintain a cautious stance when automakers make high-profile, environmentally friendly promises. Industry stunts like unveiling
electric cars at auto shows, but then not putting them into production, have only added to the environmentalists' cynicism and anger, as the
nation's 200 million cars continue to account for 25 percent of the country's global warming emissions.

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Promises of a future of low-emission vehicles have done little to quell the most outspoken of the industry's environmental critics. They have been down this road before, with nothing but broken promises to show for it; it seems unlikely that either the new technological advances or increased funding for alternatives to the gasoline engine will lower the decibel level of the debate.

"I wouldn't expect us all to mute our criticism," said the Clean Air Trust's O'Donnell. "There's a cliché that says organizing environmentalists is like herding cats. It's not as if environmental
groups are a monolithic front."


Jim Motavalli

MORE FROM Jim Motavalli

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