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
"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
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
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
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
Ironically, PR managers for both DaimlerChrysler and Honda are resolute
that consumers do not make buying decisions based on environmental
"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