Hybrid Talk: Big Auto Bandies the H Word
By Bradley BermanTue Apr 11, 8:08 AM ET
Hybrids used to be the environmentalists' great shining hope for
combating auto pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, and gas guzzling.
Those were the romance days for hybrids, the first two or three years
following their introduction in 2000. But the honeymoon is over. With
the emergence of performance-oriented hybrids and ultra-mild hybrid
systems, environmentalists now see the technology as one more example
of how Big Auto has hoodwinked consumers into believing their products
are as green as they can possibly get.
But it may be too late for the auto makers to put the hybrid cat back
in the bag. Everybody has seen what the best of hybrid technology can
do, shattering Detroit's myth that it lacks the know-how to greatly
extend average fuel economy. "Hybrids are the poster child for the
fuel economy debate," says Jason Mark, director of the Clean Vehicles
Program for the Union of Concerned Scientists.
The Union of Concerned Scientists, like the Sierra Club, BlueWater
Network, the Rainforest Action Network/Global Exchange, and others,
share the view that the latest hybrids are being used as greenwash,
but they appear divided on which car company is the worst culprit. The
UCS, for example, sees General Motors (NYSE:GM - News) as enemy No. 1.
They have applied the term "hollow hybrid" to GM's current hybrid
"Bad Boys." "We think that hybrid technology ought to be reserved for
the environmental and consumer benefits [it] can deliver," says UCS's
Jason Mark. "Every quasi-hybrid under the sun is being labeled as a
hybrid for public relations benefits." Mark thinks that hybrid
technology should be put to better uses than turning a 16-mpg vehicle
into an 18-mpg vehicle. "The point is not to turn extreme gas-guzzlers
into moderate gas guzzlers."
What perturbs Mark and others is not only the mislabeling or misuse of
hybrid technology on the part of certain auto makers, but that those
same auto makers are lobbying and litigating to block any public
policy that will hold them accountable for the detrimental
environmental and social effects of their products. Mark calls GM "the
bad boys of public policy for fuel economy, emissions, and greenhouse
gases. In all public forums, they are the most aggressive in fighting
environmental regulations. If you ask anybody to rank the auto makers
on their policy performance, GM would be on the bottom."
The folks at Jumpstart Ford, a project of Global Exchange and the
Rainforest Action Network, might disagree. Their disapproval and
public protests are aimed at the Ford Motor Co (NYSE:F - News).
Jennifer Krill, zero emissions campaign director for the Rainforest
Action Network, thinks that Ford deserves credit for producing the
Ford Escape Hybrid. But, she said, the same year that Ford released
the Escape Hybrid, they "had the worst overall fuel-efficiency record.
One hybrid doesn't let them off the hook for being the most wasteful
Nobody'S Perfect. Don't think that Prius-producing Toyota has escaped
the attention of the environmentalists. Last fall, when Toyota (TM)
launched its "Hybrid Synergy Drive" ad campaign, BlueWater Network
launched its own campaign, entitled "Toyota: A Wolf in Sheep's
Clothing." The full-page ads in The New York Times and other
publications showed CEO Katsuaki Watanabe in the foreground and a man
wearing a wolf's head in the background.
"What people don't know, and what we wanted to tell them, is that
Toyota is not as green as it makes itself out to be," says Danielle
Fugere, director of climate change at BlueWater. "Yes, it has some
good green technology, like the Prius. But Toyota has consistently
lobbied against every attempt to increase vehicle fuel economy. It's
part of a group of auto makers suing against California's greenhouse
While the various environmental groups have each chosen a different
company to target for their public education campaigns, they stand
unified in their criticism of the auto makers who have sued California
to block the enactment of AB1493, the greenhouse gas capping law known
as the Pavley Law. The regulation, which could affect as much as 30%
of the U.S. market (not just California), would be phased in from 2009
to 2016. It would require the auto industry to cut greenhouse gas
emissions from its new fleets by approximately 30%.
Major Lawsuit. The response from auto makers is that greenhouse gas
restrictions are a surrogate for fuel economy, because increasing fuel
efficiency is the only effective way to reduce the amount of carbon
dioxide released into the atmosphere. Therefore, they claim,
California is trying to regulate fuel economy standards, which only
can be established at the federal level. Otherwise, they argue,
manufacturers would have to produce vehicles based on two or more
different emissions standards. [In fact, tailpipe emissions are
already set at the state level.]
BlueWaterNetwork, Rainforest Action Network, Global Exchange, the
Sierra Club, Environmental Defense, and the National Resources Defense
Council have all joined the lawsuit to defend the Pavley Law against
the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers and the Alliance of
International Automobile Manufacturers, which includes all of the
major carmakers, including those who sell hybrids.
The state of California and the environmental groups say that
greenhouse gas emissions are not strictly related to fuel economy.
"The auto makers can comply by using alternative-fuel vehicles," says
Blue Water's Fugere. "In some cases, an alternative-fuel vehicle will
get less fuel economy. California doesn't care if fuel economy goes up
or goes down. We want to know how much CO2 is coming up from the
Green Challenge. The legal contest, scheduled for 2007, is shaping up
into the biggest battle over automobile emissions and efficiency since
CAFE [corporate average fuel economy] was enacted 30 years ago. And it
highlights the fact that producing a hybrid -- however you define it
-- no longer makes a car company a green company. "I would like to
have a name like 'hybrid' denote this is a great, fuel-efficient
vehicle," says Fugere. "Point of fact, the auto manufacturers are
using the hybrid terminology to fool people."
Now the only way for a car company to be considered environmentally
friendly is to remove its name from the lawsuit blocking the Pavley
Law. Toyota? Honda? Ford? Anybody?