Ford's Smokescreen

While Ford began to gear up its new image as a corporate environmentalist on Earth Day, emphasizing a commitment to reducing smog-forming emissions and its future plans to sell fuel-efficient hybrid vehicles, environmentalists say it is too early to greenwash the company's fleet, pointing to Ford's slow progress in raising the fuel economy of its sport utility vehicles and other trucks.

Ford was the exclusive sponsor (with 24 pages of advertisements) of Time Magazine's special Earth Day 2000 edition, which went to 30 million readers worldwide. Ford also sponsored a special concert in San Francisco on April 15 honoring the "heroes for the Planet" saluted in Time's Earth Day edition.

Company officials say that Ford's chairman, William Clay Ford Jr., is a self-described "lifelong environmentalist" and has pledged to make the company the industry leader in developing cleaner vehicles.

Last year, Ford sold 2.3 million trucks, the bulk of the 3.4 million total vehicles it sold in 1999. In February, Ford rolled out the Excursion, its biggest sport utility vehicle yet.

At the beginning of April, Ford announced that it would begin selling the Escape, its first hybrid engine sport utility vehicle in 2003, using both gasoline and electric propulsion for better gas mileage.

With the hybrid engine, the Escape is expected to get 40 miles per gallon (mpg) in the city and on the highway.

"Ford has made a pledge to provide ingenious environmental solutions that will position us as a leader in the automotive industry of the twenty-first century. Our actions, such as making all of our trucks in the United States low emissions vehicles, demonstrate that we care about preserving the environment for future generations," James C. Schroer, Ford's vice president of global marketing, says.

Environmentalists say that while Ford's commitment to low smog-forming emissions distinguishes it from other U.S. automakers, the company has made little progress in reducing emissions of carbon dioxide, leaving Ford one of the biggest contributors to global warming in the industry.

Carbon dioxide emissions are kept in check by the federal government's corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards. The CAFE standard for light trucks (including sport utility vehicles, minivans and pickups) is 20.7 miles per gallon (versus 27.5 for cars), allowing the average light truck sold to emit one-third more carbon dioxide (CO2) than the average car sold.

In March, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) released "Pollution Lineup," an environmental ranking of automakers. UCS ranked Ford worst in terms of light truck CO2 (greenhouse gas) emissions.

"While Ford's current voluntary commitments are a good first step, they would do little to improve its current ranking," UCS reported. "For Ford to have made substantial strides, it would have had to raise the fuel economy of its light truck fleet to 27.5 mpg (equivalent to cars) and certify all of its vehicles to low-emission vehicle standards."

"Despite Ford's progress, as long as the industry holds back CAFE standards in Congress you're not going to see overall improvements in the fleet," says Ann Mesnikoff, Washington representative of the Sierra Club's global warming program.

Ford, GM and Chrysler have managed to block stricter CAFE standards in significant part by touting their involvement in the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles (PNGV) -- a taxpayer-funded program intended to triple gas mileage. Formed in 1993, the PNGV is a joint research project of the big three U.S. automakers and 20 federal laboratories. It is intended to develop high gas mileage cars, though the automakers are under no obligation to deploy any technologies developed under the initiative. 

Seven years and a billion tax dollars down the road, the average mileage of the U.S. vehicle fleet has sunk to its lowest point since 1980, while CO2 emissions of new 1999 passenger vehicles was 5.5 percent higher than in  1993, according to UCS.

Environmentalists say the PNGV has also focused on developing the wrong technologies, including diesel engines which will not meet California's tough emissions standards.

"The Big Three have so far wed themselves to dirty technology that can't be sold in California and may not even meet the new national tailpipe standards," says Mesnikoff.

Other technologies -- including fuel cell vehicle prototypes -- have been explored through a Clean Car Initiative as part of the PNGV, but none of the companies expects to commercialize them any time soon.

At the 1999 Frankfurt Motor Show, Ford presented a prototype of the Ford FC5 concept car -- a 5-passenger fuel cell vehicle that it hopes to mass produce by 2004. General Motors says it will also commercialize a fuel cell vehicle by 2004, while Honda -- not a PNGV participant -- projects it will have a fuel cell vehicle ready for production by 2003.

"An expanded focus on futuristic technologies combined with ongoing neglect of technology improvements needed today represents, on balance, only another step backward from tangible progress toward the goal of a sustainable transportation system," says John DeCicco, of the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy and co-author of the UCS report. "Promises to begin putting some advanced vehicles on the road in three to four years will do little to reverse the growth in oil dependence and global pollution."

Meanwhile, other auto companies are currently offering hybrid vehicles with much higher fuel efficiency standards than their U.S. competitors. Honda's Insight gas/electric hybrid gets up to 70 mpg on the highway and Toyota's Prius -- due out this summer -- will get at least 50 mpg. The Prius also qualifies as a Super Ultra Low Emission Vehicle, California's designation of a vehicle which emits only a tiny amount of smog precursors.

-- Charlie Cray