MARKET FOCUS: ENVIRONMENTAL PR - The race to be seen as green. Oncea much larger issue in Europe than here, environmental friendliness is agrowing consideration for many US automakers. Douglas Quenqua reports

Countless factors enter into the equation when buying a new car.

Make, model, color, fuel efficiency, safety, price - the list goes on

and on. And every auto maker tries to satisfy every item on the list to

the best of its ability. Ever since the 1970s, environmental concerns

have crept onto that list, and Detroit has been steadily building its

green credentials with the public ever since.



It is not enough, of course, to make advances in pollution-curbing

technology in the privacy of the lab. If consumers don't know what's

being accomplished, then the benefit to the carmakers themselves could

be considered negligible.



And unlike a radical new color or a sporty new hubcap, environmental

advances won't be noticed by the average car buyer. So auto

manufacturers are working hard to get that message across.



Of course, some are working harder than others.



Getting the word out



Ron Cogan is the founder and publisher of the Green Car Journal, a

monthly newsletter that calls itself the "Bible of the worldwide

automotive environmental industry." He says, "Without question, there

are three car companies at the forefront: Honda, Toyota, and Ford."

David Cole, director of the center for auto research at the

Environmental Research Institute of Michigan, agrees with Cogan's list,

but adds General Motors.



Those sentiments are partially reflected by media coverage of the issue.

CARMA analyzed all references in the print media over the period from

January to August 2001, and found that Toyota and Honda received the

most favorable mentions with regard to their environmental practices,

with Toyota coming out slightly on top. General Motors and

DaimlerChrysler were next, given equal ratings of 58 out of 100 (see

sidebar).



"First," Cogan explains, "(these companies) have a lot of vehicles and

programs that address environmental issues. But more important, they

have made a corporate decision to actively promote that as a core value,

spending a lot of money getting the word out."



Product developments are all variations on a handful of new

technologies. Electric cars, which run on batteries that need to be

recharged frequently, are no longer considered the environmental wave of

the future. In fact, the electric car has become something of a

cautionary tale in the auto industry. Many companies rushed to build

electric cars during the gas shortages of the 1970s, and hyped them as

the future of transportation. But these cars ran on batteries that

needed to be recharged after fewer than a hundred miles.



"We've learned our lesson from the electric vehicle," says Nissan's Gina

Pasco, manager for global corporate news. She explains that Nissan is

working hard in the lab to produce more environmentally friendly

vehicles, but it will be some time before most people hear about it. "We

don't want to go out there until we have the hardware," she says. "There

was such hype about the electric car. The reality was that people were

having to charge a vehicle for eight hours that can only run for 80

miles. We want this to be low-key. We're definitely working on a

program, but we don't want to mislead people into believing that they

will see it in the showroom tomorrow."



Offering a glimpse into the future



Electric technology has not been discarded outright by the industry.

These days it is more likely to pop up in "hybrid" cars - vehicles that

run on a combination of gasoline and electricity - or gasoline and "fuel

cells."



Fuel-cell engines, that run on hydrogen and oxygen and emit only water

vapor, are what has the industry buzzing now. The industry is still

about ten years shy of being able to mass produce cars that run on fuel

cells, but major advances have been made - and unlike Nissan, most

automakers are happy to sound the horn now.



One of the most popular ways to showcase this technology is the use of

concept cars. Concept cars are those vehicles created for the sole

purpose of showing what will be coming off the line in the next several

years or decades. If you don't go to car shows or read Car and Driver,

or if you aren't an automotive journalist, you're not likely to see

these vehicles.



But trade and hobby journalists, car enthusiasts, and the environmental

media pay rapt attention to them. Part scientific forecast and part

sci-fi fantasy, these cars whet the industry appetite for what will soon

be possible. Automakers are spending a lot of money putting fuel-cell

technology in concept cars and showing them off wherever possible.



Ford takes its concept car initiative very seriously, which helps

account for its position as an industry leader. "We have fuel-cell

vehicles in a semi-trailer that travels to various shows throughout the

country," says Robin Shultz, environmental vehicles communications

manager. "It basically educates people about fuel cells and fuel-cell

products. We try to keep it on tour 360 days a year."



Ford has a limited line of cars called TH!NK, fueled by both fuel-cell

and electric technologies. Shultz says the company does everything it

can to actually get consumers themselves into these vehicles. "We focus

on a lot of grassroots efforts," she says. "At local shows, the goal is

to get people into the product, drive them, and get them to understand

what they're all about. We do lots of education, but not a lot of

traditional launches."



Honda has also focused on building concept equipment. One of its more

creative efforts was the construction of an actual hydrogen station -

the very thing the country will need if fuel-cell cars are to avoid the

fate of their electric counterparts. While Ford takes its case directly

to the consumer, Honda chooses to go through the media, a strategy

reflected in its high favorability rating by CARMA.



Honda produces a number of environmental newsletters that go directly to

the media, though not just the automotive media. PR manager Art Garner

explains that Honda would rather have a piece about their fuel-cell cars

in Talk than in Motor Trend, though he accepts the small likelihood of

that. "We try to approach the general-interest media, but the automotive

media is much more attuned to the technology involved." Garner says.

Honda also tries hard to engage environmental journalists with "about a

million and one" newsletters.



But even trade journalists aren't exactly lining up to write about

emissions levels. That's why Daimler-Chrysler produces environmental

concept cars that, at first glance, are showcases for design and power.

"It's hard to get people interested in some of these complex

environmental matters when your typical gearhead auto reporter cares a

lot more about horsepower than environmental technology," says Ann

Smith, senior manager for environmental communications. "So we package

it up in a sexy car, and then they're interested."



A popular tactic used by many auto makers is publicly partnering with

the right nonprofits. Ford partnered with Conservation International to

create the Center for Environmental Leadership in Business; GM recently

partnered with the Nature Conservancy to buy a piece of rainforest equal

to the size of Montana; and Daimler-Chrysler, Ford, GM, Honda, Hyundai,

Nissan, Toyota, and Volkswagen are all members of the California Fuel

Cell Partnership, an association that seeks to demonstrate and advance

the viability of fuel-cell technology.



Aside from lending credibility, these partnerships help spread the word

around environmental circles that car companies really do care. The

Nature Conservancy has a million members, and when they talk to their

environmental colleagues, they have great things to say about the GM

relationship," explains Dave Barthmuss, manager of energy, environment,

and sustainability communications for GM.



How this all affects sales



The bottom line is this: How much does a consumer consider an

auto-maker's green credentials when buying a car? Is it truly a

motivating factor, or just an afterthought?



Opinions vary widely. Barthmuss says it is a serious factor in

car-buying decisions - especially in air-conscious California. "Our

consumer is willing to pay for these kind of environmentally friendly

vehicles," he says, but adds that GM would rather not have them make

that choice. "What we try to do is provide a product where they don't

have to make a trade-off." To achieve that end, GM is hoping to

eventually put its best fuel-cell technology right into its best-selling

cars.



Ironically, PR managers for both DaimlerChrysler and Honda are resolute

that consumers do not make buying decisions based on environmental

matters.



"What we find in our studies is that if customers are asked if

(environmental factors) are important, they say yes," says

DaimlerChrysler's Smith. "But then if you ask customers to rank a whole

series of features when they're actually making a decision, we'll find

fuel economy and emissions are near the bottom. The quality of air

conditioning ranks higher."



"Frankly," she continues, "there seems to be more of an interest from

the news media than the general consumer population." So regardless of

who's in the lead, all automakers would seem to have a bit farther to

go.



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