HEAT

Beth Lowery

Lowery

She is General Motors' vice president for environment, energy and safety policy and represents GM on the World Business Council for Sustainable Development. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on Nov. 9, 2007.

“As a public policy option, CAFE [fuel-economy] standards are not something that are very effective in reducing dependence on petroleum.”

Let's begin with you giving General Motors a grade for its job of producing environment-friendly cars.

Well, since I am the vice president of Environment and Energy for General Motors, I would say we're doing a very good job. We're doing a lot today to have more than 30 miles per gallon for highway mileage, as well as fuel cell hybrids, flex-fuel vehicles [FFVs]. So I definitely would give us A for effort. With respect to the consumers and in the marketplace, that's one that is a little more challenging in getting things in the market that are affordable and in high volume. We have much more work to do.

Why are other countries able to put things in the marketplace when we can't? Is there something wrong with [the United States'] technology?

Actually, in the United States, we do have a lot of fuel-efficient vehicles on the road. General Motors, for example, has more than any other automaker -- vehicles that get more than 30 miles per gallon on a highway. We also have hybrids on the road. We also have the Project Equinox, which is fuel cell vehicles [FCVs] -- more than 100 that are being test-marketed. We also have flex-fuel vehicles on the road that run on E85 ethanol. So we have a lot of various technologies. ...

But other countries routinely have fuel standards for 35 miles per gallon, and we seem not to be able to accomplish that here. Why is that?

Actually, it varies across the globe with respect to how fuel economy is used and regulated. So here in the United States, we have what's called Corporate Average Fuel Economy [CAFE]. In other places, such as Europe, they have voluntary standards. And in China, they also have fuel-economy standards. But the United States is actually the only country that has Corporate Average Fuel Economy, which is a fleet average. So there's apples and oranges when you're talking about fuel economy.

Right. But there [are] a lot of countries that have cars on the road, on average, that get higher miles per gallon, that are more efficient.

Actually, there is a whole difference with respect to looking at the global aspects of transportation. So when you look at fuel economy, you need to look at the type of vehicle, the fuel and the policies in that country. So, for example, in Europe, [they have] large penetration of diesels, which are better from a CO2 perspective. Then you also have taxes on fuels, so that drives consumers to be able to drive diesels, because the fuel is cheaper. So it's a combination of the system factors that decide what transportation will be acceptable to that consumer and public.

But whatever it is, I mean -- for instance, here, 80 percent of the hybrid market belongs to Toyota with the Prius. Why have Americans not been able to do a better job?

Well, actually, what's interesting about that is, hybrid is still a very small percentage of the market. And yes, the Prius is a very popular model. General Motors started our hybrid strategy with buses. And we think a hybrid bus is a very important part of reducing CO2 emissions. Then we also, in the next four years, will be introducing a hybrid every three months.

So we have a different strategy with respect to where we think hybrids play a role, which is SUVs and pickups, which consume fuel. We want to make sure we put hybridization on those vehicles that are very popular in the United States. So you'll see our two-mode hybrid coming out this fall, for example. And that's a very important technology. So one aspect of hybrids is a small hybrid, such as a Toyota Prius. Other aspects of hybridization are vehicles like our Chevy Tahoe and GMC Yukon.

But they're selling a lot more Priuses than you're selling hybrid Tahoes and --

Yeah, certainly --

Correct?

At this point in time that is the case, certainly.

Right. So they've been able to put more hybrids on the road than you have been able to. They've been able to sell a lot more hybrids than General Motors or any other American auto manufacturer has been able to sell. The question is why.

Well, I think what is important is that General Motors has had advanced technology strategy, which is not focused on a single solution. So when we're looking at reducing carbon emissions and making sure that we're providing customers with the vehicles they want, we have a broad portfolio of vehicles. That includes hybrids. That includes the future of fuel cells. It includes plug-in hybrids and vehicles such as a Chevy Volt. And it includes flex-fuel vehicles.

So this is not about a single vehicle or a single solution. It's about having a broad choice and making sure we have alternatives in the marketplace, which is our strategy. We have that as our business strategy.

Let's talk about the "Live Green, Go Yellow" program. You just mentioned the flex-fuel vehicles. What does the flex-fuel vehicle really do for reducing CO2 emissions?

That is an excellent question. We have more than 2.5 million vehicles on the road that run on flex fuel. Here in the United States, it's E85 ethanol, which is 85 percent ethanol, 15 percent gasoline, and it reduces CO2 emissions. It is, from a renewable standpoint, now produced from corn or sugarcane in Brazil, eventually from cellulosic materials. So it's very important that it provides an alternative where you can reduce CO2 emissions. This has been studied by the Argonne National Lab on the energy balance and reduction in CO2. And the E85 does provide that opportunity.

By how much?

Actually, the CO2 reduction, it depends where you get the ethanol from -- so corn is different than sugarcane is different than cellulosics. So it ranges from 15 percent all the way to about 65 percent.

But on corn, which is what we have here in the United States -- the few service stations that we have are putting out corn-based ethanol, right?

Absolutely. At this point in time, it is corn-based.

And so the savings that you get on CO2 emissions from using corn-based ethanol in one of your E85 vehicles would be how much?

It's about a 15 percent reduction.

Fifteen percent reduction, which is small compared to where we need to be.

Absolutely. One of the reasons that E85 ethanol is important is not just because of CO2 emissions. It's an important piece of it, but it's also because it provides you a choice in the marketplace. Right now, we're 98 percent dependent on transportation fuels that come from oil. And what's important is, let's figure out alternatives. And one of the alternatives is ethanol, currently from corn in the United States.

But it's important to make a distinction, I think, between what is an energy security benefit and a reduction in CO2 emissions.

Actually, all of those are very important for transportation. So we're looking at energy security, CO2 emissions. ... So all of those aspects are important.

But when you're talking about your ethanol vehicle, your E85 vehicles, a 15 percent reduction in CO2 emissions, it's not very green.

It's actually an alternative that is green. And I think what's important is that when we're looking at these various alternatives, again, there's no single solution; there's no silver bullet. All these are going to add up to making a difference. So, for example, if someone says, "Well, I would like to drive a hybrid," or, "I'd like to drive a fuel cell," or, "I'd like to drive E85 ethanol," people want to be able to have a choice.

So we're not saying that you're going to get all the CO2 reductions by producing only corn-based ethanol. You're going to have to have a lot of alternatives.

But what I mean is that if the United Nations is saying we need to reduce, in the United States, our CO2 emissions by 80 percent by 2050, how are we going to get there by saving 15 percent by driving ethanol-fueled vehicles?

You are going to reduce CO2 emissions by everything we do. So everything you do with respect to transportation, what you do in your facilities, what individual consumers do in the vehicle, choices they make and how they use their energy in their homes, all of that is important. There is not one silver bullet or simple solution.

I understand that. But I mean, here's a point that [GM's Vice President for R&D and Strategic Planning] Larry Burns made when he was talking about hybrid vehicles. He made the point that they're not a long-term solution for CO2 emissions because the gains that you get in efficiency are overwhelmed, overshadowed by increasing number of car sales. So you can save 15 percent, say, on driving an E85 vehicle, but as more people drive cars, just in a few years, you're back to where you began.

Oh, it's really important that we have consumers [and] the fuel providers, along with the auto manufacturers, working on how we can reduce CO2 emissions from transportation. So we all have a role to play. Low-carbon fuels is a piece of that. Improving vehicle efficiency and working on all the various alternatives and advanced technologies is a piece of that. And consumers and what vehicles they choose to drive, as well as how they drive them, how many miles they travel and how they maintain their vehicles all [have] an impact on how we reduce CO2.

I don't question that, I was just trying to ask a specific question about how a 15 -- or, by other estimates, 10 -- percent savings in CO2 emissions from an E85 vehicle is really going to get us there.

Actually, there is no way you can get [there] with any one alternative.

Well, the hydrogen fuel cell vehicle would have no CO2 emissions.

We're a very big supporter of hydrogen fuel cells, ... and we're certainly working very hard on that. But today we need an alternative in the marketplace, and that is flex-fuel vehicles and E85 ethanol, along with hybrids, and along with clean diesels. So all of those play a very important role.

You say you have 2.5 million E85-ready vehicles on the road.

Yes.

How many of those are actually using ethanol?

Actually, we don't know exactly how many are using [E85]. We do know that the distribution of ethanol is not widespread across the United States. So we are working hard with fuel providers to increase the number of stations that offer E85 ethanol so our customers will have that available in their local station at an economical price.

But you must have some estimate of -- say you're selling E85 vehicles in the state of California, and there's no E85 fuel available there.

Well, there [are] a few pumps there. And also --

A few, but there's not much.

Right.

There's negligible amounts.

It's not widespread. It's not widespread.

So, I mean, you must have some idea, because you're forever trying to figure out how you can improve sales and how you can improve your bottom line -- it's your responsibility to do that. So you [must] have some sense of, out of those 2.5 million cars you have on the road, as to how many are actually using the fuel.

Well, it's a small percentage in a place such as California, because the fuel is not readily available. But certainly, what's important is that we provide the flex-fuel alternative for our customers and the technology that now allows the vehicles to be running on E85 ethanol or regular gasoline. So what we've decided we need to do is, in addition to promoting and selling flex-fuel vehicles, we need to work with federal, state and local governments, along with fuel providers, to help get those ethanol pumps into the local communities, because that's when it's going to make a difference, when the vehicles are actually running on E85 ethanol.

If ethanol, with its modest savings in CO2 emissions, is a part of the solution, why aren't CAFE standards something that could be a part of the solution? You fight tooth and nail against CAFE standards.

Actually, fuel efficiency is a part of the equation as well.

But you're against CAFE standards.

Actually, we are supportive of [the] Hill-Terry [bill], which is an increase in fuel-economy standards.

But looking over time, you've fought CAFE standards. Is that a fair statement?

Over time, we have looked at the CAFE policy and said, if we're really looking at reducing dependence on petroleum and reducing CO2 emissions, CAFE standards have not been very effective in this country to do so.

What we know we have to have is a full portfolio of choices, which includes improving fuel efficiency along the lines of the CAFE standards that are in the Hill-Terry bill, which basically gives an orderly cadence for getting technologies in the marketplace and making sure that we have the time and the technology, when it's available and right for this market, in affordable vehicles, so they'll be successful in the marketplace.

We all know that working on technology that doesn't come out in the marketplace is not going to help the environment or help the manufacturers.

But you've made statements before on the Hill -- I mean, I have them here -- where you say, "CAFE standards don't work." Period.

As a public policy option, CAFE standards are not something that are very effective in reducing dependence on petroleum.

But where would we be without them? I mean, it's true that CAFE standards alone haven't led to an overall reduction, but we've had an increasing number of drivers, people driving further, during this period of time that we're measuring. So the real question is, where would we be without CAFE standards, right?

Well, what's important is to have vehicle fuel efficiency. So every vehicle we're working on, we need to look at, what is the technology? What is the size of the vehicle? What are the aerodynamics of the vehicle? What can we do to improve fuel efficiency?

We have best-in-class fuel efficiency on our SUVs and our pickup trucks, as well as working hard to have more models than anyone else that get 30 miles per gallon on the highway. So what's important is to keep fuel efficiency front and center, and something we're trying to improve.

Now, CAFE is a policy, it's an overall fleet average [where] basically, depending on customers and what they buy in the marketplace, that determines what the overall CAFE number is. So what we think is very important from a policy standpoint and reducing greenhouse gas emissions is looking at overall a cap-and-trade system that would bring in all the various sectors of the economy and come up with a system that would really put in place something that would reduce carbon emissions, which is a mandatory cap-and-trade system.

A mandatory cap-and-trade system. But I know that among the USCAP [U.S. Climate Action Partnership] companies, which you're one of them now, that there's no agreement on CAFE standards. There's a lot of discussion going on right now, but there's no agreement. Now, you would like to see the oil companies have to pay to cap the carbon.

Absolutely not the case. What we're doing is working on a number of things that talk about the three legs of the stool, which are customers, the fuel providers and the auto manufacturers. So we all know we all have a role to play in this. And we certainly will do our part to improve fuel efficiency, which is very important in the marketplace, as well as to meet regulatory requirements, as well as to reduce carbon emissions.

But I have to ask you the tough questions about CAFE standards when it comes to SUVs, crossover vehicles. It's known that CAFE standards did not apply to light trucks, SUVs, crossover vehicles. And it was a way in which the automobile manufacturers, I think it was Lee Iacocca's idea, in fact, initially, to come --

Before my time. (Laughs.)

Yes, but it's your company, and you're speaking for the company.

No, actually Lee Iacocca's Chrysler.

I understand. But GM is your company, you're in this industry, and so I'm asking you. I mean, the people want to know why we should trust that you're going to come out with better fuel-efficiency standards, more efficient vehicles, when historically you've used the law to sidestep fuel-efficiency standards.

That is absolutely not the case.

You've sidestepped Gas Guzzler Taxes, and you've sidestepped --

That's absolutely not the case.

Well, SUVs, light trucks, don't qualify under CAFE standards. They do now, but they didn't for many years, and you sold many of them during that period of time. And they weren't subject to the kind of CAFE standards that the law intended.

Actually, the car and truck standards are separate standards under CAFE, so they are covered by the CAFE standards. Certainly there have been changes over time in what those requirements are. General Motors has always been in compliance with the laws, and we certainly have done our part to improve fuel efficiency.

We are now, obviously, supporting an increase in CAFE standards as part of the energy discussions that are ongoing. And certainly we will continue to bring out technologies that really make a difference here, to improve fuel economy.

SUVs were too heavy to fall under the law. They were exempted from the law. I mean, is that correct?

There were classification[s] of vehicles that were from station wagons. Then SUVs were developed, and cars and trucks, etc. So yes, I mean, there were changes in the way the vehicles were designed and what vehicles qualified for what numbers in CAFE.

So under CAFE standards, these classes of cars -- I mean SUVs, crossover vehicles -- were exempted from the CAFE standards.

No, they were not exempted. They were required to meet different standards.

Eventually. Initially they weren't held to any standard.

Well, I think what's really important is we talk about where we are today.

But I just want to understand the facts. Isn't that the case? They were exempted from the standards until more recently?

What we've done with respect to reforming of truck CAFE is looking at the reform system, so there are CAFE standards that apply for cars and trucks.

Now there are, and Gas Guzzler Taxes and other things. After the Arab oil embargo, the United States government wanted to encourage you, give you incentives to make more fuel-efficient vehicles, so they imposed a Gas Guzzler Tax. But these taxes didn't apply to those vehicles that were too heavy. They were --

Well, there are requirements, and when you make public policy decisions, you make limitations on what you think should apply where. In certain cases, [the] Gas Guzzler Tax applied. In some cases, it didn't.

But should it not have applied to a wider group of vehicles?

Well, I guess it depends on what you're trying to incentivize and what you believe are important incentives to get the accomplishment of the objective overall. As a society in the United States and internationally, we're very focused on reducing carbon emissions. How do you go about doing that? You look at the fuel for transportation; you look at the automobile; you look at the consumer use. If we continue to improve fuel efficiency, that's a very important piece of the role we play.

What the history has been, when the fuel price is low and when we have improved fuel efficiency, we have more vehicle miles traveled, which means we have more carbon that's in the atmosphere. So what's important is to get policies that bring all of that together.

But during that period of time that gas prices were low, General Motors, Ford, Chrysler, sold a lot of SUVs that were emitting a lot of carbon dioxide, getting very low mileage.

Actually, I would say we were providing the market with SUVs that people really appreciated -- the functionality, the quality, the styling. They'd bring their kids, their stuff, and be able to use it for their transportation needs. Yes, we had to continue to improve fuel economy. And we have, very proud to say, best in class in those segments for General Motors.

In January of 1993, about 15 years ago, Clinton and Gore stood on the White House lawn and announced $1 billion in government funds for the big three automakers, and in return, there was a commitment to improve fuel efficiency by three times. What happened?

Actually, that was a very important initiative called Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicle[s]. I think that's what you're referring to.

The Clean Car Initiative, January 1993.

And what was important is that we all worked on various technologies to accomplish that objective.

But we didn't get there. We didn't improve fuel efficiency by three times.

Actually, there were a number of technologies it put in place, and as a project, we worked on what would be achievable at that point in time. I think it's very important to distinguish research projects, which we have been working on as a government partnership, as well as all the work that General Motors is doing from what you can do that is affordable, that a customer can actually go to the showroom and purchase. And what you need to do is continually work on reducing costs of some of these technologies. So if you were in a situation where cost didn't make any difference, then there are a number of things in a lab that people are working on. And what we need to do is make sure that we bring it out in a vehicle that customers really enjoy both the functionality and the design, and they can afford it.

So that's what the challenge has been as we continue to bring these technologies to market, which is why we're very pleased with where we are with bringing hybrids to market, working on the flex-fuel vehicles, and making sure we have future technologies, such as plug-in hybrids, Chevy Volt and fuel cells.

But what happened with that initiative, where you pledged that you'd improve fuel efficiency by three times?

Actually, I'm not that familiar with the specific stuff, but my understanding is that that was a project that all the teams worked on, and we learned a lot from that project. There was a lot of discussion of lightweight materials as well as technologies that are in the various vehicles that you're seeing today.

I know that you're not personally responsible for this. But, I mean, you are the VP of Environment and Energy, and so now you wear this hat, I guess from '89 on. That's --

I've been at General Motors since '89, but then this job since 2001.

I mean, it's a credibility problem with the American public.

I actually think that the American public really understands more every day about what we're doing and how this is something that we have to do jointly. So I would think that what we have been doing, and what we've been providing to the marketplace, is something that's very important.

We have been providing vehicles of high quality that people are interested in buying and that we are working every day on fuel efficiency. That's why we have the products we've talked about that we have on the market. That's why we have flex-fuel. That's why we have hybrids that are coming out. That's why we have Chevy Volt and the plug-in hybrids and the fuel cells. Those are very important technologies that General Motors will continue to work on and put into the marketplace.

Around the time that you had this Clean Car Initiative in January '93, it was around that same time that you launched the Hummer: $129,000, 11 miles per gallon. It raises issues about how serious General Motors really is about [increasing] fuel economy.

I really think it's important that we are in 2007 now. So I think what's important is to look at where General Motors is as a company, what our commitment is to these issues and know that we have advanced technology strategy that we have been working on and have executed against.

But people have to look at what you're doing now and assess it in terms of what they've seen in the past. They've seen you sidestepping regulations on the Gas Guzzler Tax; they've seen the introduction of the Hummer, tens of millions of dollars spent on advertising for the Hummer. And now we're being asked to believe that we're going to get somewhere on fuel efficiency.

Well, let's be perfectly clear. This is not about one vehicle, whether it's a small hybrid vehicle or a large vehicle. What it is about is bringing technologies to market that are really going to make a difference and be successful in the marketplace. So we need to have a variety of solutions, and General Motors is committed to bringing those.

We have a history of being able to have a broad portfolio of vehicles in choices for our customer. So in this area, what we know is important is fuel economy, making sure we improve the fuel economy of our cars and trucks that are in the market today. Technologies such as active fuel management, making sure we have clean diesels, [are] important on a global basis. That we have flex-fuel vehicles, that we have hybrids we're bringing out -- all of those are important parts of what we're doing in our commitment at General Motors.

There also is [another] important part, which is marketing and communication, which you bring up. And it's important that we are not only having those products in the marketplace, [but] that people are aware of them, so, for example, on flex-fuel vehicles, making sure people know where the fuel is so that they can try to fuel those vehicles with E85 ethanol. Our technologies such as OnStar -- you push the button and you ask someone, "Where is an E85 station?," they can tell you. You have a flex-fuel vehicle, and you can go to that station and be able to purchase --

It's likely to be 600 miles away.

Not in all locations. In the Midwest, obviously, there's more concentration, and we certainly have been working. We've been doing 15 state partnerships and adding about 300 stations. We certainly want to have more and more. And we think at a federal and state level, we should get help doing that.

Let's talk about the electric car. You've had initiatives in the past to develop an electric car. There [have] been promises made. You ended up, with the EV1, crushing them in the desert -- taking them away from customers who liked them. And now you say the Volt is going to be it. Just in the vernacular here, why should we believe you now?

We learned a lot from the EV1. The experience was a very good one. We certainly have the technologies that we're using on our hybrids and fuel cells, and even today's vehicles, with respect to electronic controls, etc. So the electric vehicle and the engineers that worked on that, contrary to popular belief, are with General Motors and are working hard.

So you learned a lot. Why did you abandon it?

What happened with respect to the EV1 were the limitations of the battery. What people did not like, with respect to the EV1, was having their life controlled around when they could plug it in and be able to recharge with special charging. So what we've learned from that is what we have in the Chevy Volt, in our E-Flex system, which is, you want to be able to go 40 miles without using a drop of gasoline, and then at the end of the day, you want to be able to plug your vehicle into a regular outlet. You don't want to have any special system for that.

And so that's the technology that we think is going to be very successful in the marketplace. And we've received very positive feedback from that. So what was important with respect to the EV1 was that technology we put in the marketplace. And we leased those vehicles initially because we knew exactly what the limitations were with respect to parts and the batteries, and we thought it was important that we learn from that technology. But the customers would not be able to get parts or the batteries for those vehicles, so we could not keep them in the marketplace.

Just for the record, why did you have to crush them? Why did you have to destroy them?

Well, actually we have a number of them that are in museums and that are in universities. And then, with respect to some of them, we did recycle them, which is what we do with vehicles at the end of the life cycle.

So that was a recycling program?

The electric vehicle, some of them, as I mentioned, are in museums, and some are in universities, and some went through the recycling process.

Which was crushing them for scrap, right?

Yeah, absolutely.

OK. I just want it clear. A lot of people have that question. ... I went to see the Volt on display. It was running at about 10 miles per hour. Your representative there suggested that if we wanted to, we could speed up the tape, which I didn't think was reasonable. And then, after about 15 minutes, it conked out. It wasn't a confidence builder. Where are you now on that car?

Well, the Chevy Volt was introduced last January as a concept vehicle. So when we introduced that, we introduced the E-Flex system and the design, which is a beautifully designed vehicle. We have a production team in place to really advance the production of the vehicle, as well as working on the battery. So we're in the process of testing lithium-ion batteries that could be used for a plug-in capability at this point in time. And we're hoping, in the spring, to have additional vehicles for driving.

So when is that car going to be on the market, and how much is it going to cost?

Well, we certainly don't know what the cost would be, and we don't have a specific date. We really have a stretch objective by the end of the decade to have something in the marketplace with respect to the Chevy Volt.

What are the corporate views on the urgency of climate change as an issue?

Well, I think it's very important that we do our part to reduce CO2 emissions. That's something that we have a role to play in, and so it's very important that we look at solutions. That's the concern over global climate, is, "What is the impact of increasing CO2 emissions?" So we have a role to play in making sure that we bring the technology market to actually do that.

The question is, how urgent do you think the problem is?

I think it's something that scientists are going to think about and study and really look at for a very long time, that they have been, and there is a concern. And so the question --

I mean, there's a consensus opinion among the world's scientists. It's not something they're continuing to study at this point.

Well, I think there is a lot of studying going on with respect to impacts, and there will continue to be a lot of studying with respect to global climate. What I have been very interested in, and I think our company is interested in, is how do we become part of the solution associated with that? We don't want climate change to be something that continues to be a concern, or that transportation continues to be a focus with respect to reducing CO2 emissions. We want to be able to come up with solutions for that, which is why we have a broad portfolio of vehicles to do that.

How do you define corporate responsibility?

Well, I think it's very important that a corporation is focused on a number of issues. In corporate responsibility we talk about economics; we talk about environment; we talk about social responsibility. So, for example, when we go into various areas of the world, it's very important for us to address the economic impacts of providing jobs, as well as making sure we're taking care of environmental issues and that we're doing our part to provide transportation. That's very important from a personal-mobility standpoint.

Does any one issue among those that you just listed take priority over any other?

Actually, with respect to corporate responsibility, I think it's very important that we have all those as much in balance as we can.

CAFE standards are either part of the solution or not. And I'm not sure what GM's position is.

CAFE standards is something that we have been working on to look at what is a reasonable number, as an overall policy, for looking at reducing dependence on petroleum. That alone is not going to get you there.

There's all sorts of science that says you could put vehicles out on the road -- family vehicles -- that get 40-plus miles per gallon, easily, and even SUVs that get 35 miles per gallon. Why don't you do it?

If it was that easy, don't you think every manufacturer in the world would be doing that?

Other countries are coming out with cars that are making much better mileage numbers.

I think we've discussed the fact that countries have different policies and different-size vehicles and different fuel standards, etc. So there's apples and oranges when you're talking about that. So certainly in some places, smaller vehicles and vehicles that run on diesel, for example, do get better fuel economy.

But people are feeling the urgency of climate change. That's why I asked you how you felt about it, and I'm not sure I got a really clear answer on that. People feel the urgency of the problem, and they can change light bulbs in their house. But when they go to buy a car, they have very limited choices.

Well, I think what's really important with respect to addressing these issues from a transportation standpoint, again, is to have choice, so when you talk about individual choice and you can change your light bulb and feel like you're doing something -- when someone looks at personal transportation, they want to be able to have a choice in how they can reduce their carbon footprint. They can do that a number of other ways. One is flex-fuel vehicles -- small percentage [reduction] of CO2, but certainly a reduction in CO2. They can look --

Small, negligible.

Not anymore.

If we have to make 80 percent reductions by 2050, a 10 or 15 percent reduction is peanuts.

Every single piece of what we can do to reduce CO2 emissions needs to add up to get anywhere near that number.

But they don't add up.

If changing a light bulb was going to have an impact on reducing carbon emissions, then certainly using flex-fuel vehicles and using 85 ethanol has an impact on CO2 emissions.

... To get to 80 percent reductions, we have to be talking on a different order, don't we?

Absolutely, which is -- changing light bulbs is one thing you can do. Looking at transportation fuels and transportation choices, and making sure that you're doing your part in every piece of it -- so a customer, for example, that goes into a showroom, buys the vehicle that fits their needs, very pleased that they can get high fuel economy or have a choice of a hybrid or have a choice of flex-fuel vehicles, or have a choice, eventually, with plug-in hybrids and fuel cells, that's what we need to get to. So for certain people, the Volt, 40 miles without using a drop of gasoline, is absolutely the right vehicle.

But it's nowhere near being on the market.

For others, the choice would be they need a larger vehicle. So maybe a flex-fuel or a clean diesel makes sense for them. So what's important is in transportation, just like anything else, we all have a role to play, and there is a choice that you want to be able to have.

Yeah, but [even] if we all make the choice to reduce our carbon footprint by 20 percent or 30 percent or 40 percent, the scientists are telling us that we're in grave trouble. Those are significant reductions beyond what you're currently offering, and those are not good enough.

What I think is very important is for people to look for solutions, so what we at General Motors are doing is looking at solutions across the whole spectrum. So what are we doing in our products? What are we doing from an education standpoint?

Do you think you're doing enough?

We are doing a lot and will continue to do more.

Do you think you're doing enough?

General Motors has a very strong commitment. Our product programs and portfolio are very important. We have a role to play, and it's very important that we have a broad choice across all the various vehicles. So we're looking at every aspect of the vehicle with respect to fuel efficiency. We're looking at every technology that's available today and what could be future technologies.

I'm very proud of what General Motors is doing with electric vehicles and hydrogen fuel cells. I don't know of any other company that has that many options on the table, including working on the education, public policy, marketing aspects of really trying to be part of the solution. And so I think it is very important that we all have a role to play, and that we play that role. And General Motors is certainly doing that.

The question is, there [have] always been concept cars out there. [At] every auto show there are concept cars. But in the case of the electric vehicle, we're not seeing it yet. And we've been told, "It's coming, it's coming, it's coming." And instead we get Hummers; instead we get SUVs; instead we get gas guzzlers.

What I think is really important is to look at the limitations, the technologies, and try to remove those barriers. And that's exactly what we're doing with the development -- working with battery manufacturers on lithium-ion batteries, working on the plug-in version of hybrids.

Why did Toyota beat you to the Prius?

Actually, Toyota and General Motors worked together on a number of technologies over time. Toyota looked at the hybrids and the Prius from an overall standpoint, knew there would be the loss of money for some time on the cost of that, but looked at it from an overall marketing and image standpoint, and General Motors really looked at it from a business [perspective]: Can this vehicle make money? Now certainly --

If General Motors looks at things from a business point of view, why did Toyota just report a record quarter and General Motors just report a record loss?

I was referring to [the] decision made with respect to hybrids.

I know. But you're standing on the reputation of the company to look at these things from an economic point of view. You said, "Toyota looked at the Prius from a point of view of PR and image." But yet Toyota is eating your lunch.

Well, as I mentioned before, General Motors is very committed to reducing emissions. We're very focused on bringing products to market that are going to satisfy the customers -- not only in the U.S. but globally. And so we'll be the first company to sell a million vehicles, for example, in the Chinese market, which we think is a very important developing market, [where] we just announced an energy center, a research center, making sure that as that country is developing personal mobility, that we're addressing these issues. So I think it's very important to look at General Motors as a global company, what our commitment is on these issues.

What's your biggest selling car in China?

Buick.

And how many miles per gallon does a Buick get?

Actually, for the Chinese model, I don't know for sure what it is.

But it's a big car.

Actually, it's a vehicle that the Chinese market has asked for. And certainly --

Right, but people ask for crack. I mean, it doesn't mean that we give them whatever they ask for. I mean, there is -- what you say -- corporate responsibility to give people choices that help solve what has become a planetary problem of great urgency.

Right. And again, I'm very proud of where General Motors is with respect to providing choices in the marketplace. I don't know of another company --

You want to still give General Motors an A? Or maybe an A-minus?

I don't know of another company that has this much on the plate to really address these issues, not only from products we offer, but also all the various aspects of the best R&D, and what we're doing from an education and public policy standpoint. So we'll continue to be part of the solution, and letting people help us, and understand, in dialogues across the globe with respect to how we all work together to solve this issue. ...

posted october 21, 2008

heat home page · watch online · dvd/transcript · credits · site map
FRONTLINE series home · privacy policy · journalistic guidelines

FRONTLINE is a registered trademark of wgbh educational foundation.
main photograph © corbis, all rights reserved
web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation