Driving Evolution

by Carolyn Chase


Cut to the Chase #66 March 8, 1999

Driving Evolution

The Ford Motor Company is good case study of the conflicts facing both auto manufacturers and consumers as we struggle to reconcile environmental protection with human desires and commerce.

Within months of Chairman Bill Clay Ford Jr.'s remarks declaring the "new environmental ethic at Ford" and that "the Board supports the goal of Ford becoming the world's most environmentally friendly automaker," Ford is rolling out what will be the largest sport utility vehicle on the market when it arrives in showrooms Oct. 1. The Ford "Excursion" offers wealthy consumers the chance to drive their commitment to conspicuous consumption into the 21st century.

The Sierra Club quickly dubbed the Excursion "the Ford Valdez," after the infamous oil tanker. "It's basically a garbage truck that dumps into the sky," said Dan Becker, who directs the Sierra Club's global warming program. "It's nice that Ford is talking about the environment," says Becker, "but Ford needs to put its vehicles where its mouth is. For Ford to build a massive, gas-guzzling, polluting vehicle like this shows how big a job Ford has to make Ford into a green company."

While environmentalists point out that the Excursion will emit the pollution of two other cars, Ford is quick to counter that the Excursion will qualify as a low-emission vehicle in all 50 states and is expected to emit 43% less smog than is permitted by law.

They also point out that consumers want bigger cars and that this is a product for a specific market niche. I should say so. Excursions will have an expected sticker price of price of $45,000 to $50,000. There is no question that consumers have responded to ads blanketing the airwaves showing SUVs conquering ever steeper slopes and cruising up streambeds where no car should ever go to begin with. In the past seven years, sales of big SUVs have climbed from 50,000 to nearly 160,000. Trucks and SUVs now represent 50% of all the vehicles sold in the U.S. In 1997, Ford tallied $60 billion in revenues from sales of SUVs and other kinds of trucks.

Harder to understand is that most Southern California SUV owners don't even take them out into the nature and seldom, if ever, encounter driving conditions requiring 4-wheel drive. Yet they are willing to sustain higher initial sticker prices along with greatly increased day-to-day operating, insurance and maintenance costs.

To its credit, Ford has certified all of its SUVs and Windstar minivans as "Low Emissions Vehicles" (LEVs) throughout the country and not just where it is required by law (in California and parts of the Northeast). This action significantly reduces their smog-forming pollution nationwide and gives Ford the position of creating some of the "least bad" big car products on the market. Honda also is making its LEV-certified Civic and Accords widely available.

This greater availability of LEVs represents real progress in cutting smog-forming pollutants. However, the lack of fuel economy improvements, and particularly with the growing popularity of SUVs, adds up to a lack of progress on global warming emissions.

Combustion of gasoline, diesel and other petroleum products is the largest source of the greenhouse gasses that contribute to global warming. Most of the environmental impacts associated with motor vehicles occurs when they are used, due to exhaust pollution. Gasoline and diesel fuel currently provide 97 percent of America's transportation energy needs. American cars a light trucks alone account for more of the fossil fuel carbon dioxide emissions than the total nationwide emissions of all but three other countries in the world. For families with several vehicles, the pollution from their cars, vans, sport utilities and pickup trucks is often greater than from their electricity, heating fuel use, waste disposal and other household activities combined. Improving the fuel efficiency of vehicles is one of the single biggest steps we can take to reduce global warming.

What's a family to do? Consult "The Green Guide to Cars and Trucks." Using this path breaking consumer guide, buyers can compare vehicles by their impacts, including air pollution, global warming, health costs, annual fuel costs and of course miles-per-gallon ratings. This Guide rates all classes of vehicles from two-seater sub-compacts to pick-ups, to small, medium and large SUVs.

Many considerations go into the purchase of a new vehicle. Chock full of amazing facts, "The Green Guide to Cars and Trucks" is an excellent fundamental primer on where the auto industry is at today in offering solutions to car and light truck-related pollution costs. They also consolidate all the information into an overall "Green Score" and a ranking showing how a vehicle compares relative to others in its size class.

The Green Guide also includes several useful tables including "12 Greenest of 1999," "12 worst vehicles for the environment in 1999," and "Practical Picks." Practical picks features gasoline vehicles that score well with lower emissions and better than average fuel economy.

The 12 Greenest list is dominated by electric cars, the 12 worst by SUVs. Electric vehicles generate 80% less greenhouse gas emissions and use one-fourth the amount of energy than do conventional gasoline-powered vehicles. Because gasoline vehicles are unlikely to compete for best environmental performance until significant technology-based efficiency improvements are made, the Practical Picks list is provided for consumers unable to switch to alternative fuels at this time.

"The Green Guide to Cars and Trucks" will help you choose a greener (cleaner and more fuel-efficient) vehicle, one that minimizes harm to the environment while meeting your transportation needs.

Even if you're not in the market for a new car, I can still recommend this Guide if you're interested in the quickly learning the basics of air pollution, climate change, and greenhouse gas emissions. It's one of the best basic primers on all the various impacts of automobiles on the environment, how the industry is addressing much needed change and how consumers can help.

Cleaning up cars and trucks is one of the most important steps to be taken to protect the environment. For those of us who cannot extricate ourselves from our car-dependent lifestyle for whatever reasons, we can still make choices to reduce and improve the impacts of our choices and save money at the same time.

Green Guide to Cars and Trucks $8.95 + $5 ship/handling
Contact: American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, 1001 Connecticut Ave. N.W. Suite 801, Washington DC (202)429-8873 www.aceee.org email: ace3pubs