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