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GM Hybrid BusGM Following Multiple Paths for Green Vehicles

By Jim Bray
April 2, 2007

Environmentally friendly strategies are all the rage these days, even as the wheels of the environmental bandwagon start seizing up as science challenges eco-religious zealotry.

But whether the sky is falling or not, the inconvenient truth for corporations these days is that "going green" can be as much a survival strategy as a core belief as increasingly vocal and decreasingly honest eco-Messiahs – from Al Gore and David Suzuki to the once mainstream media – do their utmost to force the evil corporate world to follow their dogma and dicta unquestioningly or face their wrath.

Heck, in California, they're trying to sue car makers for their part in creating a "global warming problem" that to date still hasn't been proven to be the fault of humanity or its inventions. And even if it were, how can one sue someone for the "crime" of building a product that is completely legal? It's Cali-folly-nia, sure, but it's spreading!

Car makers by the nature of their products are at the forefront of the movement toward more "environmentally benign" products. Over the past several years we've seen the introductions or announcements of various "greenish" vehicles powered by everything from hybrid technology to fuel cells, from vegetable oil to ethanol. The only thing we haven't seen is vehicles powered by new, smaller nuclear reactors that could be built into vehicles – and I'm not surprised the industry hasn't chosen to go there, given the inevitable wailing from the usual suspects that would accompany such a plan.

I've driven several hybrids and have become convinced of their worth, as cars if not as ways to save "Person Nature." But while hybrids may save you gas and emissions, you pay up front for the privilege, generally, through a higher initial cost it'll take years to recoup from gasoline savings.

But there are other ways to help curb emissions and perhaps even use less gas, and more are on the way.  

One company that appears to be taking the greening of the industry seriously is General Motors. "We've been looking at environmental solutions for years," Tom Odell, GM Canada's Manager of Technical Planning, told me in a phone interview. And according to Odell, GM's strategy hasn't revolved around cars and SUV's only, but has also focused for several years on higher fuel consuming vehicles like buses.

"General Motors currently has more than 400 hybrid buses in fleet use across North America," Odell said. The company also has introduced consumer hybrid versions of the Chevy Silverado and GMC Sierra, primarily for fleet applications, and last year the company unleashed a Saturn Vue hybrid which Odell says offers "a 20 per cent increase in fuel economy compared to the conventional Vue."

And that's merely the beginning. Odell says GM will introduce four new hybrids this year, as 2008 models, including a spring launch for a Saturn Aura hybrid that uses the same general technology as the Vue and offers 25 per cent better fuel economy than a conventional Aura, for a MSRP of $22,695 U.S. ($27,000 Cdn.). A new Malibu hybrid will debut this fall as well, followed by hybrid versions of the full-sized Chevy Tahoe, GMC Yukon and Cadillac Escalade SUV's.

More GM hybrids are on tap for next year, too, and the company also intends to produce a plug-in version of the Saturn Vue Green Line they claim has the potential to achieve double the fuel efficiency of any current SUV.

Hmm. I wonder if people will still consider SUV's to be evil when they're as clean and efficient as some non-hybrid compact cars….

But while it's hybrids that make most of the news these days, there are other strategies afoot for increasing mileage and decreasing emissions. One of them is so simple it may surprise you: just buy a new car.

According to Odell, "The difference between smog-causing and greenhouse gas emissions now compared with years ago is substantial." He told me that, in 2005, the Canadian contribution to smog-forming emissions was 9.5 per cent from the automotive sector, but only 0.1 per cent of that came from new vehicles. Apparently, a car built in 1987 produced as much smog as 37, 2005 model year vehicles and Odell estimates that, by 2020, that 9.5 per cent figure for smog-causing emissions will have dropped to 4.1 per cent thanks to newer vehicles and technology being on the road. "We have basically addressed smog-causing emissions," he said.

It's a similar tale with greenhouse gases: cars and light duty trucks create 12.5 per cent of all Canada's greenhouse emissions, but only 1 per cent of that comes from new vehicles.

"Clearly," Odell says, " We need to get some of these older vehicles off the road."

To that end, and undoubtedly because it can't be bad for its bottom line, GM in Canada has partnered with the Clean Air Foundation to support the "Car Heaven" promotion. Designed to help speed up the retirement of older, "dirtier" vehicles, "Car Heaven" offers a $1000 certificate for consumers who put their old car out to pasture by purchasing a new one. Odell told me 12,000 vehicles were removed from the road last year, which is analogous to taking more than 230,000 new vehicles off the road.  

Car makers are also working hard to bring more choice to consumers for clean vehicle types, including fuel cells, E85 ethanol, and what Odell refers to as "active fuel management", which disables four of a V8 engine's cylinders when they aren't required, giving an improvement in gas mileage of about 12 percent.

Another choice is personified by the Chevy Volt introduced at auto shows this past winter. The Volt, in its initial incarnation, will be a "series" hybrid,  where the lithium-ion batteries (which are still being developed) are charged either by the car's internal combustion engine or by plugging the vehicle into a charging station at your home.  

The Volt is designed for day-to-day urban use, and people who drive 40 miles a day or less could find the plug-in critter actually cuts out trips to the gas station altogether. All you'd have to do at the end of the day is plug it in for a re-charge, much like your cell phone (though with a conventional 120V plug).  

This should do wonders for your gas consumption, but probably not as much for your hydro bill….

When talking about plug in hybrids or all-electric cars, the issue of power generation should come up – though it doesn't seem to, much. I  asked Odell about this, about whether we're going to simply move pollution from the highways to the power generation plants and their neighborhoods.

"Power generation could be a concern down the road," he said, "But the vast majority of users who need to charge electric vehicles would undoubtedly look at off-peak charging (overnight etc.), to take advantage of discounted rates on their electric bill." He also points out that if the base power utilities offer is generated from clean sources such as hydro or nuclear, emissions capability is improved all around. Plus, "It's generally easier to monitor and control emissions from a single source such as a power generating plant as opposed to multiple sources such as individual cars."

Whether the earth is about to burn itself into a cinder because of man-made global warming or not, it appears that environmentally-friendly thinking is here to stay. Credit the Gores, Suzukis and their ilk for getting the message out.

Now could they maybe give some credit to the people and the "evil corporations" who are actually doing the work while they jet around yelling through their megaphones?

Jim Bray is a member of the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada. His columns are available through the TechnoFile Syndicate.

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