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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Autos in the News

Air Date: Week of

The Big 3 U.S. automakers unveil a green fleet for the future with some designed hybrids getting up to 80 miles per gallon. They also promise that even sport utility vehicles will run cleaner. Some analysts say it's the start of a race to build a supercar for the new millennium. Laura Knoy spoke with Amory Lovins about these development. Mr. Lovins is the director of research at the Rocky Mountain Institute in Snowmass, Colorado, and a leader in the field of fuel-efficient vehicles.


KNOY: This is Living on Earth. I'm Laura Knoy, sitting in for Steve Curwood.
At the Detroit Auto Show, gas-guzzling sport utility vehicles were all the rage last year. But today, the Big Three U.S. automakers are making headlines with a proposed fleet of green cars. General Motors unveiled a hybrid electric car that gets up to 80 miles per gallon. The company says it will be ready for production in 2001. Chrysler displayed a diesel-electric hybrid car that it says will get 70 miles a gallon, and Ford showed off an electric truck and a lightweight midsize sedan. Meanwhile, both Ford and Chrysler say starting next year, their sport utility vehicles will match the lower emissions levels of cars. Here to speak with us about these developments is Amory Lovins. He's director of research at Rocky Mountain Institute in Snowmass, Colorado, and a leader in the field of fuel-efficient vehicles. Amory, why now? Why are the US automakers coming out with all these cleaner, more efficient cars now?

LOVINS: In a word, competition. Toyota has just started marketing a double- efficiency hybrid electric car in Japan. They're threatening to bring it here. And Toyota and Honda have made it clear that they intend to do to Detroit all over again what they did in the 70s. Only this time, Detroit woke up a lot faster. Jack Smith, the head of GM, just came back from the Tokyo auto show where this vehicle was featured, saying it had made a profound impression on him. And his vice chair, Harry Pierce, just said, "Yeah, we're deadly serious about catching up and indeed staying ahead." They think they are ahead; they may be in some respects. But they do take it as a major competitive threat that if they don't come up with clean, efficient vehicles very quickly, that Toyota and Honda may take that market away from them.

KNOY: And speaking of markets, markets are worldwide now. And some have pointed out that if the US industry wants to expand worldwide it has to acknowledge the reality that gas is a lot more expensive in other countries.

LOVINS: I think the difference this time is that efficiency will not depend on how high the gasoline price is. In this country it's cheaper than bottled water, but that's no obstacle to engineering the car so it's actually a better car. And people buy it because it's better, not because it saves fuel and pollution, exactly as people buy compact discs instead of vinyl records. It's simply a better product that redefines market expectations.

KNOY: Do you think the global warming agreement recently reached in Kyoto put pressure on the automakers to increase the development of these more efficient cars?

LOVINS: It's very clear that the automakers, having initially hoped there would not be an agreement in Kyoto, now realize the trading framework that will reward people for reducing CO2 emissions changes the economics quite a lot, because it means you can make money off carbon savings. And that, I think, changes the whole tone of how the business community looks at global warming. They're starting to see it now as a major business opportunity.

KNOY: You mentioned that in this country gasoline is as cheap as mineral water. Do you think that that will hurt the potential demand for fuel-efficient vehicles?

LOVINS: I don't think the cheap gasoline in the US is going to matter at all to the efficiency of the car. I know this is heresy, because we're used to thinking there are only 2 ways to get cars efficient. Either stiff gasoline taxes or regulation. But I think we're now doing an end run around that. If we put together the best technologies that exist now, we could engineer -- although it may take a decade to do it this well -- a car that combines Lexus luxury and refinement, Mercedes stiffness and solidity, Volvo safety, Porsche acceleration, Taurus price, 100 or 200 miles a gallon, and zero or equivalent zero emissions. All the technology it takes to do that exists now. Whoever does it first is going to own the market.

KNOY: So the technology exists now. It makes me wonder why this hasn't happened in the past.

LOVINS: Hybrid cars are not a new idea. Porsche invented those in 1900, but the equipment he had, the electrical stuff and the materials to build the car out of, were only a tenth as good as we have now and he had no electronics. And what you're seeing in the Detroit Auto Show, with everyone coming out with hybrid cars, is the first of 2 shoes dropping. The other shoe, which will drop over the next few years, is making the car out of different materials, 2 or 3 times lighter than now and yet the same or better crashworthiness, because the materials are very strong. Making the car also more aerodynamic and with better tires. And these things reduce by at least half the energy it takes to make the car go, so I think, as Ford and others get into different materials, different methods of manufacturing, they'll find that actually ultralight can work better and cost less than the traditional steel car. And it's such a natural partner with hybrid drive that this combination of ultra- light slippery hybrid, which we call the hyper-car, is the next big thing. It's the next trillion-dollar industry. And it's probably going to be the end, as we know them, of the car, oil, steel, electricity, and coal industries, but it'll also be the beginning of new ones that are much more benign and much more profitable. That's not a bad nucleus for a green industrial renaissance.

KNOY: Amory Lovins directs research at Rocky Mountain Institute in Snowmass, Colorado. Thanks for joining us.

LOVINS: Thank you.



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