Earth Day on the Highway

Our friends at explore what this little piece of history means for the future of green car technology and environmental awareness in the automotive industry

During the late 1960s and early 1970s, the words environmental and green were hardly a blip on America’s radar. There were no catalytic converters, no smog emissions, none of the checks we have on automobiles now. Most of the vehicles on the road were powered by V-8 engines and guzzled filthy leaded gasoline. Their poor gas mileage wasn’t even a consideration.

This way of driving couldn’t be sustained forever. In 1970, a U.S. Senator from Wisconsin, Gaylord Nelson, proposed the first nationwide environmental protest to, as he said, “shake up the political establishment and force this issue onto the national agenda.”

On April 22, 1970 the first Earth Day was celebrated, with more than 20 million Americans taking to the streets to demonstrate for a healthy and sustainable environment and increased societal awareness. Out of that successful Earth Day came the creation of the United States Environmental Protection Agency and the passage of the Clean Air, Clean Water and the Endangered Species acts.

Cut to 39 years later and the American environmental movement has come a long way. In just the past year we’ve seen oil prices fluctuate dramatically, forcing the American public become more educated about ecological issues. Yet we still have a long way to go. Look at any newspaper, website or television and you’ll hear how we are facing a catastrophic climate crisis due to global warming.

In honor of Earth Day, DriverSide put together a primer on what you can do to help, what’s being done by the automotive industry and what’s to come in the future. Of Earth Day, Nelson remarked after the first event, “It was a gamble, but it worked.”

What You Can Do?
“You can try to eat less meat, drive less, ride a bike more, walk more, take fewer trips to run useless errands and use more public transportation. Don’t drive alone, that’s the worse thing,” says Chris Paine, director of “Who Killed The Electric Car”. “It’s also important to set an example – there is nothing more powerful than setting an example. Personally, I try to use and consume much less.”

When asked about his film’s long-reaching impact, Chris says, “People are paying more attention; it you tried to kill the electric car today, there would be a huge outcry. The key is people tuning into these issues and being willing to change the way they do things.”

And change is what the environmental movement is striving for. When asked if he thinks recent popularity of green technology can have an effect on the negative changes in our atmosphere, Matt Petersen, President & CEO, Global Green, says, “The long answer is that nothing will immediately stop the heating we have set it motion – the global weather system does not react immediately to change. We need to think long-term.”

He continues, “Everyone should choose to walk, bike, or take public transit whenever possible – these are the greenest transportation options any one has. In addition to low-emission, fuel-efficient vehicles, we also need a radical increase in use of solar and wind power, green buildings, high performance schools, smart growth, and mass transit.”

What are the car manufacturers doing?

We asked an assortment of car manufacturers what they are doing to work on solutions to global warming, oil dependency and the future of green technology in automobiles.

While not fully exhaustive of the entire industry, we think the list below presents a solid foundation to build upon.

Where do you think green technology will be in 10 (or 20) years?

“Within 10 to 20 years, automobiles will continue to be predominantly powered by gasoline and diesel, but the sources of these to fuels will increasingly come from biomass and other sources. Petroleum will still be in use, but its share will decline. Ethanol will die out as a fuel, but not before a significant battle. However, since ethanol can’t be use in existing cars, its role becomes limited. Batteries continue to over-promise and under-deliver, as do fuel cells. Hybridization of the powertrain takes a dominant role.” – Bill Reinert, National Manager of Advanced Technology Vehicles, Toyota Motor Company

“As we have long noted, there is no single solution, no ‘silver bullet’, but rather an array of technologies that will become available transportation choices. Over the next ten to twenty years our focus will be on developing a plug and play kind of strategy, leveraging global vehicle platforms to handle different powertrains to build the right vehicles for the right markets on a global basis and do so in a way that makes the technology affordable for millions.” – John Viera, Director, Sustainability, Environmental, and Safety Engineering, Ford Motor Company

“The internal combustion engine will most likely not disappear in the next 10 to 20 years. However, the powertrain mix is expected to shift dramatically. Smaller displacement engines and the application of direct injection, superchargers and turbochargers will grow. Hybrids powertrains will continue to play a role in the market. Diesel engines may be constrained by the difficulty of achieving NOX emission regulations. At this time, pure electric powertrains seem to offer the only viable path to zero emissions in that timeframe.
“The key will be to balance the need to push for fuel efficiency improvements while keeping the needs of consumers in mind. Ultimately, consumers will determine what technology will be successful.” – Mark Perry, Director, Product Planning, Nissan North America

Do you think the auto industry has done enough to promote green technology?

“The auto industry has done a pretty good job of responding to consumer needs. Nissan has worked developing various alternatives to internal combustion engines for over 15 years including hydrogen fuel cell, electric, diesel, and flex fuel. While the industry has become more nimble in controlling production, it is still a difficult challenge forecasting and responding to consumer shifts. A successful automaker needs a balanced portfolio of vehicles and powertrains to cover most scenarios.” – Mark Perry, Director, Product Planning, Nissan North America

“I think the automobile industry has promoted green but the definition has been changing. 3 years ago it was all about ethanol and flex-fuels, today only special interest groups support that idea. Now we’ve moved on to PHEVs and electric cars, regardless of the state of development of the battery. If anything, maybe the industry over promoted “green” and didn’t talk honestly about the problems of developing new approaches that would challenge the dominance of the internal combustion engine. We were playing defense when we should have been playing offense.” – Bill Reinert, National Manager of Advanced Technology Vehicles, Toyota Motor Company

What else do you think the industry can do?

“The big thing for the auto industry is the new development of Low Carbon Fuel Standards. With these standards in place we can begin the process of developing true replacements for petroleum derived gasoline and diesel. This will help with respect to the 250 million cars already on the road in the US (nearly a billion worldwide) and with respect to new engines and devices that can target a single fuel standard driving all
emissions towards zero.” – Bill Reinert, National Manager of Advanced Technology Vehicles, Toyota Motor Company

“The auto industry spends billions of dollars researching and developing vehicles for today and tomorrow. With our recently announced electrification strategy, we are employing a comprehensive approach that tackles all of the commercial issues including batteries, connectivity standards and infrastructures. We are doing so through strategic partnerships with suppliers, utilities and the government.

Similar collaboration will be necessary to move ahead with other alternative fuels and technologies including bio-fuels such as cellulosic ethanol, and long range, hydrogen fuel cells. In each case, we are seeking transportation solutions that are sustainable in every sense of the word, environmental, social and economic.” – John Viera, Director, Sustainability, Environmental, and Safety Engineering, Ford Motor Company

Is owning a hybrid vehicle enough?

“No. There are other deserving technologies out there – hybrids are good but not perfect, and many believe they are not cost effective in the long run. Take a wider view – don’t get so close to any technology that you believe it is a panacea and all other technologies are bad. Like everything else it all boils down to personal choices – in how we live, what we drive and what we do.” – Allen Schaeffer, Executive Director, Diesel Technology Forum.