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The Car Industry Is Already Greener Than You Think

Ever heard of Baden-Württemberg? Doesn't matter if you have; all you need to know is that it's the German state that Mercedes Benz and Porsche call home. And now the man who's set to govern it, Green Party member Winfried Kretschmann, says the region should embrace a different carmaking future:

"Fewer cars are of course better than more," Kretschmann told Sunday newspaper Bild am Sonntag. "We have to sell mobility concepts in the future, not just cars. That means walking, bike riding, driving and train riding. We have to link these things together cleverly, so that we continue to make progress and prevent environmental damage...

"The great green vision is to create green product lines from this strong industrial region," he said. "We want to prove that economy and ecology belong together if we don't want to destroy our livelihood."

Political reaction from the opposition was swift and dismissive.

But the actual auto industry reacted differently
Well, sort of. Porsche said it wants " to invite him to start a dialogue.... This should be the beginning of a constructive cooperation."

But that comment is telling, because what Kretschmann is talking about is something the auto industry has been talking about for years now. And in some cases, carmakers have already taken action.

Automakers as "mobility providers"
First off, the concept of being a "mobility provider" isn't new to carmakers. No less an automotive luminary than William Clay Ford, Jr. told Forbes the following:

When I think about the future, I don't just think of the future of cars and trucks. I think about the future of mobility, moving people, and what's going to be the best way to do it.
At a more practical level, automakers have been tackling the too-many-cars problem for a while now, although the financial crisis hastened the solution along for some.

Shedding capacity, embracing the city
Globally, the auto industry has been struggling with excess capacity for years. At its peak in 2005, the U.S. auto market was at 17 million new vehicles annually -- but capacity was at 20 million. That's been shaved to 18 million by bankruptcy and restructuring, but the market now is only supporting 12-13 million vehicles, and may plateau at 15 million.

Europe is worse. More than 18 million vehicles were built in 2010 -- but there's enough capacity to build almost 25 million.

Furthermore, a lot of existing used and unused capacity doesn't fit in very well with where the planet is headed demographically (nor is it located geographically where the booming demand is, like China). As cities get larger and fuel costs escalate, the industry needs to think in terms of smaller cars that -- horrors! -- may be shared rather than owned.

Car thinkers are ahead of Green politicians
David Muyres and Geoff Wardle, a pair of car designers and sustainable mobility advocates behind the OnGoingTransportation project, have framed the question accordingly:

Why do people need to make journeys in the first place? This process will explore how people would prefer to lead their daily lives, which will naturally lead to a critical evaluation of the automobile. The average American commutes to work alone in a vehicle at least 20 times his or her own weight -- we already know that this inefficient consumption of scarce or carbon-emitting energy sources is not sustainable.
Muyres and Wardle have spent their entire careers inside the auto industry, where these kinds of questions are being asked with what I'll call strategic regularity. The answers are being translated into tangible products. The Chevy Volt extended range EV can go about 40 miles on an electric charge precisely because that the average length of an American commute.

Ironically, Kretschmann and his fellow Greens may wind up finding ample support for their vision at Porsche and Mercedes. It will then be left to the opposition to insist that an automaker's obligation is to build cars no one wants or needs.


Photo: Wikimedia Commons
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