GM plays charades with Saab, environment

If you’re wondering why there’s been nothing on site today…….here’s an epic for you

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A GM press release landed in my inbox this week:

General Motors Joins United States Climate Action Partnership

DETROIT – General Motors today announced that it will join the United States Climate Action Partnership (USCAP), becoming the first automaker to support the non-partisan group’s call for action to address climate change through advanced technology and on an economy-wide, market-driven basis.

USCAP, a partnership of companies representing key sectors of the economy and non-government organizations, issued earlier this year a set of principles and recommendations toward slowing, stopping and reversing the growth of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions over the shortest period of time reasonably achievable. USCAP’s recommendations are based on the following six principles: Account for the global dimensions of climate change; Recognize the importance of technology; Be environmentally effective; Create economic opportunity and advantage; Be fair to sectors disproportionately impacted; and, Recognize and encourage early action.

“GM is very pleased to join USCAP in proactively addressing the concerns posed by climate change,” said Rick Wagoner, chairman and CEO of General Motors. “The key as we see it is energy diversity – being able to offer our customers vehicles that can be powered by many different energy sources and advanced propulsion systems to help displace petroleum and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. We especially applaud USCAP for recognizing the important role that technology can play in achieving an economy-wide solution.”

Now this is all well and good. It sounds very warm and fuzzy, but when the rubber hits the road, the most relevant and telling sentence in this entire press release is the first paragraph. They emphasise that they’re the first automaker to do it, and more importantly, they’ve joined a “call for action”.

Translation – this is a flag waving exercise and we’re the first car company to get some cred for it.

This is a Saab blog, so I’m interested in this whole exercise from a Saab point of view. Which just makes the whole thing worse for GM as Saab is the biggest loser when it comes to assessing what GM is doing compared to what it should be doing.

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Let’s start with BioPower.

Saab first started selling BioPower spec 9-5s in the Swedish market around two years ago. The car proved to be an instant success and is still the most popular ‘green’ vehicle on the Swedish market. BioPower has enhanced Saab’s green credentials in Europe, where E85 is being accepted at a reasonable pace,with countries such as Spain and France building more ethanol infrastructure. Diesels still rule in Europe, but E85 is slowly building and Saab are well placed to capitalise on it.

It’s a much different story in the United States, however.

Saab first showed a BioPower concept car in the US at the Detroit auto show in January 2006. This car didn’t create a huge stir with the general public, but it did trigger some questions in Saab circles, the most obvious being “so when is BioPower coming to the US?”

The first round of questions seemed to indicate a 12-18 month time period before BioPower would be released, with barriers to release being cited as certification to US standards and the limited distribution network for E85 in the US. Jay Spenchian himself said back in January 2006 that it would take around 18 months for certification, but that they were pushing for it and that he regarded it as a ‘9 out of 10’ chance that they would get it, citing Biopower as a tremendous image booster for Saab in the US.

The lack of a distribution network has often been cited as a barrier for BioPower’s release. There’s good news and bad news on that front.

The good news?

Whilst the number of E85 pumps in the US is still small in the overall scheme of things, that number grew by around 60% in 2006 to over 1,200 stations. There’s currently an issue with the actual pumps themselves, which require a clearance by a group called Underwriters Laboratories for safety purposes. That clearance is reportedly on its way and once that comes the number of pumps will most likely grow at an even faster rate.

The bad news?

Despite this growth in the number of pumps, Saab’s key markets are still largely unserviced when it comes to E85. There’s only 1 pump in California, for example. In the critical North-East US market there’s 8 pumps in New York, 11 in Pennsylvania, 5 in Maryland, 2 in the District, 1 in Delaware and Massachusetts. There’s no availability in Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Connecticut or New Jersey.

The areas with the greatest availability are those closer to the E85 manufacturing facilities because it has to be transported via road, rail or barge. The midwest isn’t exactly a Saab stronghold and I’m not sure about it’s potential to become a greater player in the US market for Saab, either. Perhaps some locals can chime in on that in comments.

The point?

It’s not as if promises were made, but Saab have indicated a continued interest in bringing BioPower to the US. As it’ll run on gasoline with no issues at all, I’m really surprised that there hasn’t been more communication on this issue and it’s actual potential and timeline for becoming a reality. As Jay Spenchian said, it’s got some real potential for Saab to show some environmental leadership and there’s little, if any, downside to doing so.

What we’ve heard from GM and SaabUSA on this issue so far amounts, literally, to a “watch this space” scenario. Here’s Jay Spenchian again, in an email interview I did with him last year:

JS: At Saab USA, we are not making any secret about our desire to bring BioPower over here. We had a 9-5 BioPower as a concept car at the Detroit and Los Angeles auto shows, and the public reactions were very positive. It is obvious the E85 infrastructure throughout the United States still leaves a little to be desired at this point of time, especially in areas that are important for Saab such as New England and California. But given the most recent developments, it is just a matter of time until we will introduce E85-capable vehicles in the Saab USA portfolio. So watch this space…

We’re watching, but there’s little happening.

More recently, connections to this site were told explicitly from within Saab USA that we would hear something concrete about Saab’s BioPower plans for the American market at the New York auto show, which came and went last month (April 07) with a great BioPower100 display and a whole lot of talk about “right-sizing” engines, but not a whisper about any future plans for an actual BioPower release in the US market.

Furthermore, back in January when President Bush gave his SOTU address, I wrote to SaabUSA about BioPower and it’s increased chances of release and received the following in reply:

Steven – This sounds indeed very favorable for Saab. You can expect announcements later this year in relation to the start of Saab BioPower in the U.S.

I offered to bare my buttock in the Renaissance Centre if there wasn’t an announcement pertaining to a MY2008 BioPower release. I guess there’s still time, but my butt is getting a little twitchy here.

So……

2 Questions for Saab and GMNA:

1) To Saab USA – We were told to expect to hear about SaabUSA’s BioPower plans at the New York auto show and nothing eventuated. When, if at all, is Saab going to release a BioPower variant of its vehicles for the US market?

2) To Beth Lowery from GM – What’s happened with that ethanol agreement GM made with Chevron, Pacific Ethanol and the state of California to explore and promote the growth of ethanol in that state (which alone is around the 5th largest economy in the world)?

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The Diesel issue:

The alternative fuel that does enjoy the type of established infrastructure that E85 lacks is diesel. Last year, new regulations kicked in that enforced the use of low sulfur diesel and thereby opened the doors for a range of modern diesel engines from Europe, where diesel powered cars amount to around 60% of new car sales.

Modern diesels are going to be the next big thing in the US. Not all the players were ready straight away, but they’re coming. You’ve probably seen the stories already: Mercedes Benz will be bringing its new BlueTec diesel engines to the US. Volkswagen recently announced a new diesel Jetta that will get around 60mpg on the highway. It’s been bashed a little too much with the ugly stick, but it’s going to sell.

More than that, it’s going to give the German manufacturers a quick release from the gate in the Enviro-stakes. Modern diesel engines are pretty darn efficient, give heaps of torque, run quiet and give great mileage. And mileage is most likely to be the key.

Whilst E85 gives you great claims against your carbon footprint, a boost in power as well as fuel flexibility – people understand mileage. They have to conceptualize the whole fossil fuel emissions thing, but they do the math on mileage pretty quickly. Way better mileage = less frequent visits to the pump = more convenient and most likely better value.

GM knew about the new diesel fuel just like the Germans did. Heck, even I knew about it and started writing about it two years ago.

The reply we’ve had from Saab in this regard is that they’re too small to justify the cost of modifying the 1.9 TiD engine to meet tightening US standards. I can understand this. But this issue goes beyond Saab and is one that GM should answer for.

But how long has the Opelisation of Saturn been in the plans?

The same 1.9 TiD engine that sells so well in Europe (and now, here in Australia) is also found in Opel vehicles in Europe. Given that those same Opels are coming to the US, wouldn’t it have been a worthwhile investment to ensure that the engine was available as an option for a bigger brand like Saturn?

Saab could also have benefitted from this and thereby spread the investment even further.

I’m being quite theoretical here. What we’ve heard from GM is that it would cost too much and they don’t think the investment would be worth it. What they may be saying between the lines is that that particular engine wouldn’t have an ice cube’s chance in hell of complying anyway. Only the guys on the inside know for sure.

I’ve driven a 9-3 with that 1.9 TiD engine, though, and it’s a cracker. For 75% of 9-3 buyers who just commute from here to there with a view more on comfort and safety, it’d be absolutely fine and well worth their consideration if it was on offer.

GM have, of course, announced plans to develop a new 2.9 litre diesel engine, which will eventually go into a new Cadillac. Perhaps the Saab 9-5 will see this engine too when it’s redeveloped, but this is all future talk.

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The point of this rant is this: GM are quite happy to wheel out their executives and fly the environmental flag when it suits their purposes to do so.

BioPower and Diesel are both great examples of how a car company can actually make a difference on the ground. They can actually sell cars that are healthier to run and good to drive – if they want to.

Here’s hoping the answer on Biopower isn’t too far away. On diesel, GM are going to be around a week late and $100 short. US buyers like to talk about choice – right now they have none when it comes their favourite Swede.

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14 Comments

  1. mmm, all this makes me wonder what the reaction will be when the real research on climate change comes in and we learn that its sun activity cycle causing the global warming we’re seeing.

    Even more interesting if /when its proven that our contrib to it (CO2 emission) is negligible.

    Don’t misunderstand me, i’m 100% for cleaning up our collective act. It’s just fascinating how the momentum of opinion can gather if you have the right marketing strategy and enough people looking for a cause. Sounds familiar.

  2. “Don’t misunderstand me, i’m 100% for cleaning up our collective act.”

    Let’s take that, then, and run with it. I don’t want this thread to be hijacked by a global warming debate. Regardless of anyone’s stance on climate change, I think there’ll be a consensus opinion that things that are beneficial and do-able should be done.

    Both of these things are reputed to be beneficial and are do-able. They’re being done now, just not by Saab in the US market

    If we can, let’s keep it primarily on the cars.

  3. Saaboy: “Sun activity cycle… these cycles take place over millions of years, not only a few.”

    This cycle is 11 years long.

    Craig: “mmm, all this makes me wonder what the reaction will be when the real research on climate change comes in and we learn that its sun activity cycle causing the global warming we’re seeing.”

    Exactly what is *real* research? It’s exactly this kind of thinking that has got us into trouble before. If we can reduce the amount of fossiles we are burning, isn’t that a good thing anyway? The natural state of the earth is not to have humans burning fossiles. Why has there be waterproof fact of a big threat before we should start doing that? Because when we *do* find out and the *real* research is done, then it can be way to late to do something. Ok, that may not affect you, but generations to come. I’m pissed of what people have been doing for the last 100 years with the environment. At least we could try to learn from the past and be careful.

  4. Getting emotional about an issue such that it turns into a religion never solves it.

    Rational thinking is what identifies and solves problems. “Real” research is conducted in a rational and unbiased manner without the effect of external influences..thats science. If check the thought process behind people once thinking that the Earth was flat you can see what i mean. If you care to look it up there is quantitative research being carried out which is slowly explicitly (as opposed to circumstantially) proving that only an event (currently occurring) such as intense sunspot activity ( there is no clock for this) can have such a global effect and this is currently expected to settle down in a few years.
    I urge you to read a book called “State of Fear”.

    We have more than enough geological evidence to prove these periods of intense, warming cooling etc happen regularly in the Earths history and some abrupt.

    Go to http://www.businessandmedia.org/specialreports/2006/fireandice/fireandice.asp and it will illustrate my point well. Everyone acknowledges we need to clean up our act (see my previous) but the religion has to stop and include managing the problem as well as minimising our contribution to it in a rational way.

    To the rest you i apologise for bringing this up. Its not the forum and will be the last time.

    Cheers,

  5. SInce I’m working in the field of research and your comment made me laugh, I’m not gonna get into the debate about what research is and it’s role in society.

  6. Back to the cars…

    Ethanol really isn’t the wonder drug environmentalists want it to be, unfortunately…this is from an article on BusinessWeek:

    “It started with Congress, which mandated that even more ethanol be used to extend the nation’s fuel supply. From General Motors, an ad campaign called “Live Green, Go Yellow” gave America the impression that by purchasing GM vehicles capable of using E85 ethanol, we could help reduce our dependence on foreign oil.

    What GM left out of its ads was that the use of this fuel would likely increase the amount of smog during the summer months (as the EPA’s own attorneys had admitted in 1995) — and that using E85 in GM products would lower their fuel efficiency by as much as 25%. (USA Today recently reported that the Energy Dept. estimated the drop in mileage at 40%.)

    But one final setup for the public has gone unnoticed. At the Web site, http://www.fueleconomy.gov, which confirms the 25% to 30% drop in mileage resulting from the use of this blended fuel, another feature lets users calculate and compare annual fuel costs using regular gasoline to costs using E85.

    But the government site’s automatic calculations are based on E85 selling for 37 cents per gallon less than regular gasoline, when the USA Today article reports that at many stations in the Midwest E85 is actually selling for 13 cents per gallon more than ordinary gas. Using the corrected prices for both gasoline and E85, the annual cost of fueling GM’s Suburban goes from $2,709 to $3,763. Hence the suggestion that truth in advertising should come back into play. Possibly GM could rename this ad campaign “Shell Out Green, Turn Yellow.”

    The other negative aspect of this inefficient fuel is that numerous studies have found that ethanol creates less energy than is required to make it. Other studies have found that ethanol creates “slightly” more energy than is used in its production. Yet not one of these studies takes into account that when E85 is used, the vehicle’s fuel efficiency drops by at least 25% — and possibly by as much as 40%. Using any of the accredited studies as a baseline in an energy-efficiency equation, ethanol when used as a fuel is a net energy waste.

    Furthermore, no one has even considered the severe disruption in the nation’s fuel distribution that mandating a move into ethanol would cause. Over the past month, gas stations from Dallas to Philadelphia and parts of Massachusetts have had their tanks run dry due to a lack of ethanol to blend. The newswires have been filled with stories bemoaning the shortage of trucks, drivers, railcars, and barges to ship the product. Ethanol can’t be blended at refineries and pumped through the nation’s gasoline pipelines.”

    On the other hand, whether ethanol is good or not, people THINK it’s good, and that’s good for Saab. Therefore, they should sell the BioPower as an option here…if it runs on gas, it can’t hurt anyway. I think I’d rather have the diesel, paying 30 cents more and getting twice the mileage sounds good to me.

  7. Jeff,

    Suburbans are way less efficient with E-85 because they have low-compression engines that are not tuned for E-85 in any significant way. The beauty of Saab’s Biopower engines is that they adjust their timing and boost pressure to get much more efficiency and power out of E-85. This efficiency boost also applies to the E-5 to E-15 blends that are available everywhere in the US now.

    Lower efficiency combustion also means increased smog. Biopower engines would be at least as clean as gas engines.

    E-85 supply issues are just a short term problem. Production capacity is practically doubling every 18 months, so expect to see a lot more E-85, E-15, E-10 and E-5 fuels available in the near future.

    All that new ethanol capacity is using more modern processes that have been proven to be energy-positive. They can return as much as twice the energy input if ethanol byproducts are used to make biodiesel for the farm and transportation machinery that is used in the production process.

    Note that you are also adding-up ethanol’s lower energy density (in KW per L) twice. It’s already factored-in to the energy balance studies.

  8. I just copied and pasted from an article. Maybe I should have read it first (just kidding, I read it). I guess my point is that any new solution should be taken with a grain of salt. If Saab’s BioPower engines are really that good, then I don’t see why Saab doesn’t stick them in all of their cars, since they can apparently run on gasoline just as well.

  9. “I offered to bare my buttock in the Renaissance Centre if there wasn’t an announcement pertaining to a MY2008 BioPower release.”

    Swade, you offered to bare your buttocks (note the plural). Don’t think we’re going to accept a half-assed payment on that bet! 😉

  10. I will bite my tongue to not jump into the climate change debate in comments here as I have a strong opinion on the subject.

    But I will say that SAAB has pretty much put all their eggs in the ethanol basket. They really have no other “green” projects going that I know of (even the hybrid was touted as being the first BioPower hybrid in the world).

    The reason SAAB are such experts at ethanol is because their home country has pledged to oil independence by 2020. The alternatives to oil are limited. Biofuel is the obvious candidate. So Sweden doesn’t seem to be weaning themselves off oil strictly because of its environmental impact, they’re also trying to move themselves off foreign oil dependence.

    There’s more than one good reason to switch to biofuels from petrofuels.

    All I can say on the global warming debate is something Swade himself touched-on. It seems like whatever you CHOOSE to believe you can find “scientific opinion” that will back-up your belief. Something I heard Arnold Schwarzenegger (my governor) say (of all people) on the subject:

    “If I took my child to 100 doctors and 95 of them said he needs surgery and 5 said he doesn’t, I’m going to get him the surgery”.

    The overwhelming majority of experts (including a unanimous proclamation from every member country of the U.N.) is that global climate change is being affected by humans. It’s not sunspots or whatever else interested parties will have you believe.

    I sure hope I’m wrong and they’re all wrong, and it turns out there’s no real crisis. But I’m not going to stick my head in the sand and hope that those overwhelming majority of climate scientists are wrong. As Swade alludes, why not try cleaning-up anyway regardless of what we believe. It can’t hurt.

  11. I am with Gripen on this one. For my daughters sake I hope global warming is a myth but I now find myself turning lights off and making sure the DVD isn’t on standby.

    Back to the cars!!!

    I think it is really important not to believe ANY hype on the future of the car from either the greens or the car makers. Any alternative fuel seems to have a downside (and there seem to be a lot for ethanol)
    I don’t accept that ethanol is flat out wrong but I also don’t accept that it has no downsides either. Car makers and fuel suppilers need to upfront about what the pros and cons of any alternatives are. Hybrids may be “clean” to use but the batteries are not “clean” to produce.

    BUT it is up to us to make sure that whatever we use has the lowest possible environmental impact and not fall for GM or SAAB jumping on a bandwagon.

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