Editorial: Things Are Not Always What They SEMA

editorial things are not always what they sema

Environmental exploitation is here to stay. Even the threat of industry collapse has failed to take the collagen out of American automaker’s eco-friendly lip service. In this they are hardly alone. The litany of firms running advertisements professing their undying love for our Mother Earth, and building concept cars to show their unconsummated devotion, continues apace. 2008 is the first year that the SEMA has set aside a portion of its annual show for green trendiness. It’s not a concept that sits well with the show’s ethos of excess. But never underestimate the power of hypocrisy. And America’s ability to co-opt controversy to unite our society under the banner of the almighty buck. Amen.

Make the long trek to the very back of the second floor of the Las Vegas Convention Center’s South Hall this week, and you might see a sign advertising SEMA’s “Making Green Cool Zone.” As if the 20-minute walk through spray-on bedliner and rhinestone Aston badge frame peddlers weren’t distraction enough, a pair of GM hybrid SUVs block all sight of the Zone’s inhabitants as you approach. As it turns out, these “green” sentries could not have been better chosen.

Venture past GM’s four-wheeled answer to a question no one asked and you’ll find yet another HUMMER-on-treads. Of course. This one looks ready, will and able to guzzle as much biodiesel as a 6.5-liter engine needs to push several tons of H1 to the South Pole. The thought of this brute chewing through miles of untouched Antarctic landscape and gallons of shipped-in biodiesel suddenly filled my heart with hope for the future of the planet.

After several more minutes of zoning-out, it became clear that the Zero South HUMMER was SEMA’s shade of green. Specifically, biofuel capability is the major qualification for what “makes green cool.” From yet another military-themed biodiesel H1, to the VegiRam (how kiny is that?), to the Vegistroke Harley-Davidson F150, to the E85 ALMS Corvette, the Zone’s offerings were SEMA business-as-usual with a vegetable twist. In fact, A123 Systems’ $10k Prius PHEV conversion kit was the sole non-agricultural contribution to the cause.

Of course, SEMA’s “Green Zone” press conference (RPG-free) shied away from anything as crass as corn ethanol-boosterism. The many limitations of biofuel as a renewable and environmentally-friendly gasoline alternative were glossed over with more casual ease than Adriana Lima’s pout.

Having waded through the acres of status and power-enhancing merchandise, I pondered the long-term future of SEKA’s belated and half-assed courting of “green” credibility. Do the savvy businesspeople who make up the automotive aftermarket really believe that demand for chrome grilles and 28″ wheels has more growth potential than mileage-improving mods? Apparently so. The market has spoken.

I have overheard more than a few comments this week to the effect that this year’s SEMA show is smaller and less vibrant than past years. Listening to exhibitors, the specter of economic malaise seemed to hide behind every cautious assessment of the industry’s future. So if a consensus has been reached that the market for slammed, lifted, flashy and loud has been saturated (based on credit availability), why aren’t more companies offering mileage-improving products?

The problem with SEMA’s approach to “green” appeal is emblematic of the trends which are causing their industry to retract. Putting lambo doors on a Prius may “make green cooler” than converting gas-swilling monstrosities to biofuel-swilling monstrosities, but clearly even this is a myopic approach to an economic opportunity which will only improve over time.

Besides A123 solutions, the only hint of true vibrancy in the environmental aftermarket came from Electrojet, a tiny Michigan-based firm which isn’t even listed as a SEMA exhibitor. Their world-beating idea? A low-cost electronic fuel injection system which can bolt onto the small motorcycle engines which provide most developing-world personal transport. These tiny engines create a disproportionate amount of pollutants, creating a huge potential demand for cheap aftermarket solutions.

But SEMA was too busy “making green cool” to fully embrace the many possibilities for such game-changing aftermarket developments. Yesterday the culture of machismo and excess that permeates the SEMA show seemed like poignant self-parody. Today, I saw the true cost of this addiction to hype, quick profit and shallow glitz. A huge opportunity for a challenged industry, reduced to a few disingenuous tokens hidden away in the back corner of a huge convention hall.

I know there is more to SEMA than the garish beasts which define the automotive aftermarket in the minds of the public. The hard-working, unheralded engineers and fabricators who sell their seemingly mundane components from pedestrian booths are as important to SEMA as the dub-peddling jokers and their flashy displays. If these people take on the “green” challenge with practical, affordable accessories, they won’t just make money. They will change the entire face of the automotive aftermarket. And not a moment too soon.

Join the conversation
2 of 6 comments
  • Charly Charly on Nov 09, 2008

    Low weight wheels and fiberglass bonnets don't cost much to make but could be sold for a lot. Not that they would make economic sense but that doesn't matter for the greenies

  • Joeaverage Joeaverage on Nov 11, 2008

    Looked at ElectroJet's website. Interesting stuff. I have been reading about Megasquirt for some time and it is a similar idea. How is ElectroJet's website an .org?

  • Renewingmind The idea of a silent smell free world of vehicles sounds wonderful from a quality of life standpoint. Start with diesel trucks. Especially big ones. They are the worst offenders for fumes and noise.
  • DenverMike Pininfarina I know it's not related to this, I just like saying it.
  • Matt Posky I don't understand the appeal of fake meat and this seems to operate under a similar premise: You don't want the V8 because someone says it's bad for you. But you can have something designed to mimic the experience because that's what your body actually wants. The styling is cool I guess. But I don't understand why EVs don't just lean into what they are. Companies can make them produce any wooshing or humming noises they want. Buiding an entire system to help you pretend it still has a combustion engine seems a little lame.
  • DenverMike I'm sure it would have a volume control. It's nice to sneak into my neighborhood at 2am quietly. Or creep out, 4am. I don't get much sleep OK, but I always keep my V8 exhaust stock, as much as I love the sound of others loud. My stereo would make it pointless anyway.
  • FreedMike I’d love to see more tracks, or off-road parks if that’s your jam. But for those of us who’d love to take part in this kind of thing, practicality is the limiting factor. Racing has always been expensive, and most people don’t want to do it with their daily drivers - I’d love to see what my GLI would do on a track, but not at the cost of voiding my warranty, or potentially wrapping up the car (which I’m pretty sure would put me on State Farm’s Keith Moon-trashing-the-Holiday Inn list). As a practical matter, you have to have a vehicle that is intended to be used for racing, and the ability to fix it; most folks don’t have that kind of money or skill set.