Automakers Cross The Thin Green Line

automakers cross the thin green line

A marketing guru once told me that many companies sell themselves based on their weakest attributes. By playing up what the market perceives as their limitations, the company seeks to reverse “misconceptions” which prevent greater popularity. The strategy is what Hitler called “The Big Lie:” a falsehood of such size and splendor that no one can believe that someone had “the impudence to distort the truth so infamously.” This explains why Ford Canada used the slogan “Quality is Job 1” while building the Tempo and Escort. It also illuminates automakers’ greenwashing.

The Big Lie is that automakers are environmentalists. Excuse me for stating the obvious, but cars are not now– nor will they ever be– good for the environment. You can argue about the relative amount of damage they cause. You can debate about the various ways to minimize their impact on world ecology. But every time I see the TV spot featuring a Ford Escape Hybrid frolicking with Bambi’s family in a pristine forest, it makes me want to hurl my TV through a window.

If you believe the ad, the Ford Escape Hybrid’s gas-electric hybrid engine emits nothing but organic, non-toxic pixie dust (at least until the internal combustion engine kicks-in). Even if that were true, it’s well worth noting that The Blue Oval Boyz sold just 17,551 Escape Hybrids (34/30mpg) year-to-date– as compared to 118,321 Explorers (13/19mpg).

In their rush to cover themselves in a Teflon-coated mantle of green, automakers are no dopes. They know that their key audience (their customers) are easily distracted by bright shiny objects. We’re good for the planet because of THIS. You don’t have to buy it, but THERE IT IS. They use The Big Lie to distract their critics (and customers) from The Big Picture.

While I’m no fan of Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) legislation, at least the federal rules put automakers’ products into their proper perspective; highlighting the sum total of their vehicles’ environmental impact. Well, almost. No account is made of the pollution generated by creating and distributing these products. But I digress…

Honda provides my favourite example of green-tinged auto industry hypocrisy. This past year, Honda’s F1 group gave their race cars “Save the World” livery: a satellite image of planet earth and the signatures of thousands of people who visited myearthdream.com to pledge they’d reduce their carbon footprint.

What could be less environmentally-friendly than an F1 race car? F1 cars burn 60 litres of fuel to run 100 km, with hugely fat tires that need replacing on an hourly basis. And they are NOT emissions tested. What’s more, each car requires a massive support team and a globe-trotting entourage that makes the President’s traveling toadies look like a mobile coffee klatch.

The hypocrisy is going to get a lot worse before it gets even worse. The LA Auto Show confirms the trend: the automakers have replaced their previous pursuit of unbridled horsepower, techno toys and drop-dead glamor with the single-minded promulgation of their environmental responsibility– or at least the perception of environmental responsibility. Ironically enough, the underlying message they’re sending is actually the absolution of responsibility, not its embrace.

The LA Auto Show’s “Green Car of the Year Award” illustrates the point. The award's implicit rational: drivers can buy carbon footprint absolution, instantly divesting themselves of liability for the overall environmental impact of their personal choices. The fact that this year’s winner is not even a “car” but a great honking SUV tells us that hype has rolled over any reasonable analysis of individual consumption like a Tahoe Hybrid flattening a carelessly discarded Styrofoam cup.

Don’t get me wrong: there’s nothing wrong with making, promoting and buying vehicles that do less environmental damage than others. But any examination of these vehicles’ impact without considering the myriad of issues surrounding their creation, fueling and use is foolish.

So why are all these “green” automakers playing us for fools? Because we are fools.

Once again, carmakers are simply giving people what they want. Americans are the world’s most pampered people. I’ve got not problem with that– right to the point where it’s easier for the Earth-aware to buy a Escape Hybrid than change their transportation habits.

It’s a lot easier to commute to work in a gas – electric Ford cute ute than set up a carpool in a less exotic machine, deal with the hassles of mass transportation, change jobs for one with more telecommuting, move house to reduce journey times, etc.

In short: As long as it’s considered possible to change the world without changing habits, that’s what people will do. The rule applies equally to buyer AND seller. In that sense, just as we get the politicians we deserve, we get the hypocritical environmental advertising we desire. Sad, but true.

Comments
Join the conversation
2 of 27 comments
  • Tankd0g Tankd0g on Nov 19, 2007
    I did a quick google search and it looks like that comes from the nickel production, which is largly out of Toyotas’ hands. http://www.betterworldclub.com/articles/hummer-not-more-efficient.htm That's a little like saying nicotine is a little out of Philip Morris's hands. They are all hipocrites, and so are we for buying cars. Unless you live in the woods clad in a loin cloth you're probably destroying the earth just like the rest of us. The difference is, most of us don't pretend to be doing more than the minimum necessary. Honda and other's definitely are trying to blind us with their token efforts. For every FCX they put on the road they have 100,000 "new" ATVs rolling out that have basically a ride on loawn mower engine from 1960. And make no mistake, cars like the Prius are like everything else, a profit generation device. Toyota took a bit of a gamble on that car in the begining which is why they probably get some extra undeserved credit for sticking with it, but they saw the way the market was swinging and now it's a pretty safe bet to sell to the green crowd. It's the new heathy high mark-up market segment to replace SUVs.

  • Noel Thompson Noel Thompson on Dec 07, 2008

    This is a very rare article, and so are the comments, because they mention the idea of ultra light vehicles that do 100 mpg. That is possible right now, and would make biofuel a real solution to transportation sustainability, but as Landcrusher says, on current roads the hospital bills will get big quickly. So, why not build roads for ultralight vehicles? This would be good for everybody, as it would reduce congestion on current roads. The roads for ultralights would be for vehicles under half a ton, width less than five feet, at least dual lane, and be covered, as many famous bridges are. If the bail out for US car makers consisted of a payment for every ultralight vehicle sold, adoption rates would soar. And where ever roads are shared by ultra light and other vehicles, 30 mph is fast enough. Next year will be a unique chance to do this, it wouldn't cost much and could be done quickly compared to any alternative highway renewal plan, but it is essential that all affected parties see that it is in their interest. I might even get to ride a motorbike again. As for Hybrids, they only save fuel in stop/start conditions, like traffic jams and traffic lights, and does anybody really believe that traffic jam commuting is desirable?

  • FreedMike That wagon is yummy.
  • Syke Thanks, somehow I missed that.
  • 285exp I am quite sure that it is a complete coincidence that they have announced a $7k price increase the same week that the current administration has passed legislation extending the $7k tax credit that was set to expire. Yep, not at all related.
  • Syke Is it possible to switch the pure EV drive on and off? Given the wonderful throttle response of an EV, I could see the desirability of this for a serious off-roader. Run straight ICE to get to your off-roading site, switch over the EV drive during the off-road section, then back to ICE for the road trip back home.
  • ToolGuy Historical Perspective Moment:• First-gen Bronco debuted in MY1966• OJ Simpson Bronco chase was in 1994• 1966 to 1994 = 28 years• 1994 to now = 28 yearsFeel old yet?
Next