GM: The new green carmaker?
The planet's biggest car company shows off its Earth-friendly side.
By Peter Valdes-Dapena, CNNMoney.com staff writer
NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- The belief that General Motors has all the environmental sensitivity of a panda fur wholesaler has been widespread for a long time.
This is a company that has, in recent memory, relied on its largest, least fuel-efficient vehicles for profits, making it an easy target for environmentalists.
Kicking things off at the Los Angeles Auto Show this week, the world's largest automaker embarked on a big campaign to change that image.
There was an environmental theme at the show that even included a competition among California-based auto designers to come up with the niftiest enviro-friendly fantasy cars. GM won that competition with the Hummer O2, an off-roader with algae-filled body panels that produce oxygen from sunlight.
Out on the show floor, Ford and Honda both are both showing hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. But it's GM, again, that's really making the big green push.
Gallery: L.A. Auto Show Cars
It's appropriate that GM kicks this off in California, the state that, basically, required manufacturers to sell electric cars in the 1990s. Several manufacturers did, including Ford, Honda and Toyota, and all decided there was no market for those vehicles. They all stopped producing them for good as soon as the rules changed.
GM alone, however, has born the PR fall-out for that decision after a recent documentary drew attention to its decision to withdraw and destroy its EV1 electric cars.
Now, GM says, it's getting back into "electrified vehicles" with products it hopes consumers will ultimately find more palatable.
None of the fuel-saving vehicles GM showed at the L.A. Auto Show will have a big impact on the company's sales any time soon. Even the hybrid vehicles coming out in the next two years won't do much because hybrids still represent a tiny fraction of the U.S. car market.
Hydrogen fuel cell cars are still in the distant future as a mass-market item, but GM took a small step forward with 50 road-ready Chevrolet Equinox Fuel Cell vehicles.
That's half the 100 that the company will give to "everyday drivers, celebrities and policymakers" to drive around L.A., Washington, D.C., and New York in what the company is calling "Project Driveway." GM will listen ardently to their feedback, the company says.
Also on display at the show: the Chevrolet Sequel fuel cell vehicle. This is a more advanced vehicle, built for from the start as hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle.
In hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, a chemical process that makes water out of hydrogen and oxygen also releases electricity that drives the car.
"With Chevrolet being GM's global volume brand, it makes sense that Chevy will lead GM's fuel cell vehicle charge," said Ed Peper, Chevrolet's General Manager, in an announcement prepared for the show.
Saturn, meanwhile, is taking the point position in GM's roll-out of its gas/electric hybrid technologies. Coming to market long after Toyota, Honda and Ford had begun selling hybrid vehicles, GM's first hybrid, the Saturn Vue Green Line, is just entering dealerships now.
It's a "mild hybrid," meaning its electric motor lacks enough power to actually drive the vehicle alone. Critics call it a cheap way to make a hybrid, but that, says GM, is part of the benefit. Their Vue's hybrid system costs consumers less to buy because it costs less to make.
The other advantage of the "mild hybrid" system is that requires just a small battery pack. You can see that in the new Aura Green Line sedan. Other hybrid sedans lose trunk space to make room for batteries, but not this one.
In 2008, a completely redesigned Saturn Vue SUV becomes available with the same "full hybrid" system GM is using on its large SUVs. That Vue is expected to get a 45 percent improvement in fuel economy compared to the regular V-6-powered Vue. The current "mild hybrid" Vue gets only a 20 percent improvement in fuel economy. (Actual mileage numbers aren't available yet.)
The redesigned Vue with full- and mild-hybrid systems will be available to consumers at the same time, the company says. You can take your choice. Lower price or more fuel economy.
Someday, a plug-in hybrid version of the Vue will become available, GM promises. That vehicle will use the full-hybrid system, but with the additional capability of having its batteries charged from a wall outlet.
The plug-in Vue will be able to drive for more than 10 miles at moderate speeds using electricity only, according to GM.
But that requires much more advanced battery technology than anyone currently has at hand. So, while the rest of the system is ready to go, GM says, it has to wait to wait for battery suppliers to come up with a something that's up to the task.
At the end of Wagoner's presentation, two men went up on stage with a huge paper they asked Wagoner to sign. They said it was a pledge for GM to be the leader in fuel economy by 2010.
Wagoner replied, "I think my speech speaks for itself."
There's virtually no way GM will be the leader in fuel economy in just four years. But perhaps, by then, it can remove the big "Kick me, I'm bad for the planet" sign from its corporate back.
Gallery: L.A. Auto Show Cars