It's simple. It's business. The car companies have no choice.
Warren Brown - Washington Post - Dec. 3, 2006
You might have read or seen news reports from here last week saying that the world's car companies are going green for the 100th anniversary of the Los Angeles Auto Show.
The news reports are right and wrong.
The car companies are going green, with practically every major automaker here showing off or promising to build energy-efficient vehicles powered by electricity, ethanol, hydrogen, low-sulfur diesel, biodiesel, compressed natural gas, propane or myriad combinations thereof.
But the reports are wrong for suggesting that all of this is being done for image, that it is somehow a public relations ruse meant to placate consumers who are passionately committed to energy conservation and who, thus, are desperate for new fuel-efficient technologies.
Most American consumers are pocketbook activists. They are desperate for fuel efficiency only when gasoline prices rise. When those prices fall, they become horsepower recidivists, rapidly returning to their fuel-wasting ways by buying the biggest vehicles with the biggest engines, regardless of whether they actually need them.
The entire American economic structure is wedded to that kind of careless greed. One has to look no farther than Los Angeles, a sprawling metropolis of highways leading to housing developments covering acres -- forcing rainfall, when it comes, to flow in often ruinous directions.
The car companies did not dictate that lifestyle. American consumers chose it, just as many of them, even at home in the Washington metropolitan area, repeatedly are choosing to buy and build energy-consuming mini-mansions many highway miles away from their workplaces -- which, of course, means that most of those people are hopping into cars and trucks, often big cars and trucks carrying one person each, to get to wherever it is they think they have to go.
Again, it is American consumers, acting of their own free will, who are making those choices. No evil force is controlling their minds. No one is forcing them at gunpoint to march into real estate offices to buy the biggest house, or into an automobile dealership to buy the biggest car or truck. No one is pushing them to do inexplicably odd things such as wasting human energy waiting outside of a store to buy an electronic game that consumed energy in production and will consume more in operation. They are doing all of those things of their own volition.
That being the case, why did every major car company here feel compelled to tell the international automotive media during the Los Angeles show's media preview days that it is investing billions of dollars in the development of new alternatively fueled vehicles?
The car companies have no choice.
Unlike many of the American consumers they supposedly are trying to impress, the car companies have studied and accepted the global realities of oil. To wit: The world is demanding more of the stuff, but there is less of it to go around.
That means, sooner or later, there will not be enough of it for everybody, certainly not enough to fuel the growing number of cars and trucks around the world. That means many car companies could go out of business if there is no way to affordably fuel the cars and trucks they make.
In short, the "green" concern here has less to do with environmental image building than it has to do with continued cash flow.
It is for this reason that I applaud the honesty of G. Richard Wagoner Jr., the chairman and chief executive of General Motors, the world's largest car company, for using the Los Angeles show to announce GM's bold, new multibillion-dollar plan to produce and sell the world's largest fleet of electric cars. Wagoner minced no words.
Pressures on the world's oil resources have created "serious concerns about energy supply, energy availability, sustainable growth, the environment, and even national security," he said. And those "serious concerns" translate into real concerns about the continued existence of the automobile industry itself, he said.
As a result, he said, GM is reinvesting in electric vehicles that include plug-in hybrids that can run on electricity and gasoline; dual-mode, self-contained hybrids that use no electric cords, but that can use electricity for city runs and light-load highway runs, and switch to compressed natural gas or some other fuel for full-load highway runs; and hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles that use hydrogen to generate the electricity that provides drive power.
And there is a possibility that GM will team up with DaimlerChrysler to use that German company's advanced, high-mileage, clean-burning BlueTec diesel technology for many of its larger cars and trucks.
GM will do those things because BMW, DaimlerChrysler, Toyota, Honda, Nissan, Hyundai and the emerging car companies in China and India will do those things, because they all know a truth that still too many American consumers, wedded to the childish notion of eternally cheap gasoline, refuse to accept: The world is running low on oil.
Without the intervention of alternative fuel technologies, no oil means no cars or trucks. No cars or trucks mean no automotive industry, along with all of the resulting negative economic effects of that industry's demise.
It's painfully simple. "Going green" has not much to do with altruism. It has little to do with image. It has everything to do with staying in business.