Leland Teschler's Editorial: Automakers are Now Officially in the Green Camp

Feb. 7, 2008
Those of us who have attended the big Detroit auto show a few times have come to know the drill characterizing the typical introduction of a new model to the press.

— Leland Teschler, Editor

A high honcho from the automaker’s management team first trots out on stage and utters a few platitudes about listening to the market. The vehicle emerges from under a sheet or, to heighten the drama, gets driven out of artificial fog. Then the show centers on Hans, the exterior stylist, and his sidekick Sven who was in charge of interior design. For several minutes they wax poetic about the emotional impact of the body lines and the colors of the interior.

Unless the new vehicle is something along the lines of a Dodge Viper, you must listen closely to catch any mention of what’s in the powertrain.

All this changed last month in Detroit. Hans and Sven were still in evidence, but they were almost an afterthought. The new message hammered home by one automaker after another: “We’ve got a green powertrain.”

Every concept car to emerge from underneath the sheets or out of the artificial fog rode on some sort of plug-in hybrid power. But these plug-in hybrid schemes are all at least two years away from being practical. New models set to arrive on showroom floors this year get green credentials from the fuels they burn. They are either mixedmode hybrids like the Prius, diesels, or they incorporate a more fuel-miserly ignition scheme and can burn ethanol. Even new Hummers will be running on biofuel.

Automakers can be excused for falling all over themselves to sound green. It seems that, at last, fuel economy has become a selling point for new vehicles. But this exuberance also led to some odd pronouncements at the Detroit show. One of them came from Toyota. The world’s largest automaker had taken flak for lobbying against CAFE standards that would have impeded its ability to sell trucks here. At the show, however, a Toyota executive claimed it was high time CAFE standards were tightened.

The most bizarre, though, came from General Motors. GM CEO Rick Wagoner announced a partnership between the automaker and Coskata Inc., an ethanol producer. As he described Coskata’s process, Wagoner phrased his announcement as though the company had repealed the laws of thermodynamics. “For every unit of energy that the Coskata process uses,” said Wagoner, “it creates up to 7.7 times that amount of energy.”

I thought Wagoner’s statements about Coskata’s technology were confusing, so much so that I grabbed a GM research chief afterwards and asked her what in the world Wagoner had meant. We filmed her answer and you can see it in a video posted on EngineeringTV.com.

You’ll be happy to know that GM hasn’t really overturned the work of Lord Kelvin, though I’m still not sure Wagoner understands that. But at least the automaker didn’t rely on fake fog to get its point across about green powertrains.

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