A Green SUV?
Air Date: Week of July 28, 2000
The Ford Motor Company recently announced that it will increase the fuel efficiency of its sport utility vehicle fleet over the next five years. Detroit Free Press reporter Emilia Askari joins host Diane Toomey to discuss this decision.
TOOMEY: It’s Living On Earth, I’m Diane Toomey. There are some changes ahead for that most American of vehicles, the SUV.
NASSER: The reason we feel so strongly about it is not because we woke up one morning and decided this was just a great thing to do. We fundamentally believe that this is what customers want, this is market driven - and it is based on the premise of this is good business.
TOOMEY: That's Jacque Nasser, President and CEO of the Ford Motor Company announcing Ford’s plan to increase the fuel efficiency of its sport utility vehicles by 25 percent over the next five years. Since their introduction, SUVs have been the target of criticism from environmental groups because of their low gas mileage. Emilia Askari is a reporter for the Detroit Free Press who’s been following the story. Emilia, environmental groups are for the most part pleased with this decision, but, as we just heard, Ford CEO Jacques Nasser makes no bones about the fact that this decision was not environmentally motivated, it was based on market forces, just a simple case of giving the American people what they want. What’s your take on that?
ASKARI: Well I think he’s right. They have some new market research at Ford showing that people are looking at how much it costs to fill the gasoline tanks of these large SUVs when they are shopping for them. So, increasing the mileage will make the SUVs more appealing, especially this summer with the price of gasoline so high. Increasing the mileage of the SUVs will help sell them. In addition, however, I think that Nasser was very careful not to mention the E word, environment, because the company really got hammered earlier this year by some stock analysts who were concerned about remarks that its chairman, William Clay Ford Jr. made about the environment. He basically acknowledged that he’s an environmentalist and SUVs are not good for the environment, and that gave some investors the jitters.
TOOMEY: Well at the same time that Bill Ford is saying he is an environmentalist and he’s angst-filled because of the SUVs that his company is selling, that company is lobbying against the tightening of federal fuel efficiency standards.
ASKARI: Absolutely, Ford has been right in there with all the other auto companies for many years lobbying hard against the federal fuel efficiency standards known as CAFE. And in fact those standards haven’t increased for many years. There’s a big difference, Diane, between being forced to do something and voluntarily doing it, on your own time, in your own way. And part of the difference also is PR. It’s a lot better PR to say, "Hey, look at me, this is what we’re doing," rather than to be forced by the government to do something.
TOOMEY: Well, speaking of PR then, will other American car companies be pressured to follow suit now?
ASKARI: Yes, I think they will be. And Ford’s announcement is not the only thing that is putting the pressure on. The Japanese auto makers are going to start building SUVs in the United States, very soon. And their SUVs, many of them, will be based on a sedan frame instead of on the pickup frame that has been very popular with the American auto makers when they are building SUVs. So those sedan frames are a lot lighter than the pickup frames and they will have better mileage. And the American auto-makers are going to have to compete with that.
TOOMEY: Technically, how is this jump in fuel efficiency going to be made?
ASKARI: Well, there’s no one big breakthrough, Diane. It’s more a series of changes that they’re going to make. First they’ll look at lightening the frame of the SUV, probably by using a lot more aluminum. And then they’ll look at improving the engines. Most of these changes have been technically feasible for a long time, but they’re expensive. And environmentalists have long said that SUVs could be more efficient than they have been, that it was just a matter of will. And in fact this announcement proves them right.
TOOMEY: From the viewpoint of environmental groups, isn’t this just a case of taking a bad situation–meaning the notoriously low gas mileage these SUVs get–and making it only slightly less bad?
ASKARI: Yes, that’s right. A twenty five percent reduction in mileage only amounts to about five miles per gallon. And that’s a fleet average, Diane. That’s not saying that each model of SUV is going to be more efficient by twenty five percent, by five miles per gallon. In fact, Ford invented SUVs, and it makes the very largest SUV, the Excursion, which only gets about 13 miles per gallon on the highway. I wouldn’t expect to see that Excursion to increase it’s mileage by five miles per gallon in five years. That would be a very huge jump.
TOOMEY: Emilia Askari reports about the environment for the Detroit Free Press. Emilia, thanks for joining us today.
ASKARI: You’re welcome.
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