Green Cars At The LA Car Show


The GM Volt concept car on display.

Last week I attended the LA Car Show, which some may find strange, given the fact I believe cities should be essentially car-free. However, I do recognize that cars and trucks have a place in rural communities. And I also acknowledge that people will bee driving for a least a few more years hence. So I thought I'd see if the major automakers had taken any green inroads. I have to say overall, I was surprised by the amount of attention being paid to green issues. Almost every automaker was featuring a fuel-cell, electric or hybrid car (only Ford seems to remain oblivious to green considerations). For me, the question is: will we see working models of green cars in car dealerships, or will they exist only as an intangible concept vehicles created for marketing purposes?


On display at LA: the Smart Fortwo car which gets 40 MPG.

I was impressed by General Motors' willingness to directly engage green theorists such as myself — I spoke with GM engineers about the details of their plans for electric cars and hydrogen-fueled cars. The electric-powered GM Volt will certainly be a ground-breaking car, if it does get built (production is scheduled for 2010). Commuters would be able to drive this car 40 miles on electric power alone, which means it would be an emission-free car for many people. Al Weverstad, GM's Executive Director, Environment and Safety Policy, said that the company had made "considerable progress in making the Volt a production reality" since unveiling it last January. Weverstat promised "triple-digit fuel economy beyond its 40-mile range."


Interior of the Volt concept car

GM Vice Chairman Bob Lutz discusses the Volt.

However, the fact that their hybrid Tahoe SUV received the "Green Car Of The Year" indicates to me that we have a long way to go before a truly sustainable car gets that award. Ultimately, even SUVs can be made green. If somebody built a sustainable SUV, I might even drive one, if I still lived in the country. (Full disclosure: GM sponsored my trip to the car show).

But let me be clear about what I mean by a "sustainable" vehicle. It is a vehicle that is (1) powered by a renewable, non-polluting fuel (2) built primarily with renewable, non-toxic components that can be easily recycled or upcycled (3) durable enough to last 10 years or more. Renewable, non-polluting fuels are: electricity (when generated by a clean source), biodiesel and cellulosic ethanol (when these biofuels are generated using "waste" material or from crops grown in a sustainable manner).

The hybrid Tahoe is an improvement over a conventional SUV, but it is still a vehicle that gets 21 mpg in the city, while burning a polluting, non-renewable fuel. I'm sure it will also have that characteristic "new car" smell indicating you'll be inhaling numerous VOCs as you drive.

Overall, what I'm saying is that it's great to see automakers engaging green issues, but let's get serious about building a truly green car.

See also: LA Auto Show Highlights

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