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

Santa's Green Car

Air Date: Week of

Just unveiled at a showroom near you: Santa's sustainable sled? Producer John Rieger spoofs auto industry marketing in this affectionate tribute to Santa Claus' favored mode of transportation, giving cylinders a whole other spin.


NUNLEY: It's Living on Earth. I'm Jan Nunley. Earlier this month, General Motors began to offer for lease in southern California, Arizona, and New Mexico, the first mass-produced electric car. The move comes as many states faced with deteriorating air quality are pushing auto manufacturers to come up with non-polluting vehicles. The debut of GM's electric car was an important step in automotive history, but most of the media missed another likely more significant event taking place at about the same time. A little-known company called The Polaris Group was introducing an ultra-low polluting vehicle to the market. Living on Earth contributor John Reiger was as the unveiling in Los Angeles. He tells us that engineers are now ringing the bells for a traditional propulsion system that could become the wave of the clean air future.

(Milling, voices, applause)

CLAUS: I am pleased to announce that we have received approval to operate our new vehicle in the state of California.

(Cameras advance)

REIGER : This was the scene at the Airport Holiday Inn in Los Angeles earlier this month as Wilhelm Claus, 46-year-old head of The Polaris Group, announced that the family-owned toy and transportation giant would enter the zero-emissions vehicle market with a prototype vehicle that uses neither gasoline nor electricity.

CLAUS: We're extremely optimistic about the success of our design, which we have been developing for many years. The vehicle, as you know, is pulled by reindeer, 8 or in some cases 9, and is capable of traveling enormous distances in comparison to the electric car. By eliminating both the fuel tank and the battery array, we have allowed for really huge cargo space. And of course, there's no problem with parking, since even homes here in California have a roof. (Laughs)

REIGER : The dapper and sophisticated Claus makes a striking contrast to his affable white-bearded father from whom he took over the reins just 10 years ago. But it has proven to be a decade of remarkable change for The Polaris Group in many ways.

CLAUS: Of course there have been changes since my father's day. He was a jolly fat man, a beloved man. I am perhaps more of a businessman. And maybe I am not so beloved. Of course, we also now run fleets of these vehicles; it is no longer a one-man operation as it was in my father's day. However, I feel that The Polaris Group is continuing on in the tradition of my father's good work.

(A large door opens. Electronic sounds.)

REIGER : Nowhere is the spirit of change more apparent here. The state of the art vehicle manufacturing and animal husbandry facility in Anaheim, California, where Polaris will build the new vehicle. I toured the plant with American manager Bill Rudolph.

RUDOLPH: We chose Anaheim primarily for its workforce, which we felt would be able to adapt to what we are trying to do.

(Elves start singing: "Ho, heigh ho, it's off to work we go..." followed by chaos and crashing sounds)

RUDOLPH: We're striving for a flatter organization with more room for worker input, and more than that, an environment in which worker creativity is nurtured and can grow and contribute to the process.

REIGER : Amid the optimism, a number of questions remain to be resolved, and Polaris's future in the vehicle industry is far from assured. Skeptics have questioned whether the vehicle, developed and tested in extremely cold conditions, will work in California, where there is little snow. The 8 reindeer that power the vehicle could require as much as 100 pounds of hay and grain each day. At present, neither fueling stations nor the vast delivery infrastructure to support a substantial number of vehicles exist. But California Department of Transportation spokesperson Lester Frank says that finding answers to questions like these is the purpose of a prototype program.

FRANK: It's true that a number of important questions about fueling, maintenance and so on, still do need to be answered. But the same is true of the electric car. We feel that as regulators, our job is to encourage the market to find solutions to California's need for a practical zero-emissions vehicle.

REIGER : But others are not so sanguine. Thea Hanson is a transportation specialist with the Washington-based consumer group Citizens Alarm.

HANSON: The market can only decide when all the costs are counted. And in this case, that can't happen because this is being sold as a zero-emissions vehicle when in fact it is not. Reindeer emissions include substantial amounts of methane, which is a significant factor in global warming, as well as large volumes of solid waste, which will be aerially discharged by these flying vehicles over a wide area. A prospect which we believe the public will view with genuine and justified alarm. Ultimately, we think a zero-emissions vehicle powered by flying reindeer is a fantasy. About as likely to materialize as cold fusion or the Easter Bunny.

CLAUS: (laughs) Well, of course every child can tell you that this will work. In answer to the second question, we are aware of a vocal minority that has been saying Not In My Back Yard. We think that the majority of Californians, however, are tired of this so-called NIMBYism standing in the way of meaningful progress. So we will go ahead, and we are prepared to go to court if necessary to make this revolutionary vehicle available to the maximum number of people both here in California and eventually in the United States as a whole.

REIGER : The Polaris Group has announced that the first California-built vehicles are expected to fly off the line in 1998. Meanwhile, the company says, several imported prototypes will be flying this December. For Living on Earth, I'm John Reiger in Los Angeles.



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