If you believe their marketing, automakers are speedily driving toward green.
Ford Motor Co. announced Wednesday that it will cut 30 percent of the greenhouse-gas emissions from its new vehicle fleet by 2020. The company also said it has begun producing vehicles with seat cushions made from soy-based foam.
Last month, Daimler announced it would roll out a hybrid Mercedes-Benz sedan using lithium-ion batteries in 2009 and General Motors Corp. said it would bring lithium-ion hybrids to North America in 2010.
Also in the last month, Tesla Motors began "regular production" of its sporty electric Roadsters, Electrorides said it would debut its electric truck next month, and Aptera said it would begin manufacturing its three-wheeled electric vehicles by the end of this year.
But in spite of all these announcements, green cars – and, in particular, mainstream electric cars and plug-in hybrids – could still be years away, said Eric Fedewa, vice president for global powertrain forecasts at CSM Worldwide.
Take the Ford announcement, which led to the withdrawal of shareholder resolutions from the Interfaith Center of Corporate Responsibility and the Connecticut State Treasurer's office. (The Dominicans of Caldwell has filed a similar shareholder resolution with GM, which is expected to be voted upon in June.)
"The announcement by Ford is really more or less a marketing strategy, in my opinion, because with the new energy bill, really the 30 percent is mandated by law," Fedewa said. "They are trying to be proactive on messaging that to the market."
In December, President Bush signed an energy bill that raised the United States' fuel-economy standard by 40 percent to an average of 35 miles per gallon in 2020 (see President Signs Energy Bill and Senate Rejects Incentives to Pass Energy Bill).
Then there are the soybean seats. In its announcement, Ford said it was the first to implement soy-based seat foam in the 2008 Ford Mustang, and has since incorporated the foam into Ford F-150 pickups and the Ford Expedition and Lincoln Navigator SUVs. The new material costs the same as petroleum-based foam and uses less energy to produce, the company said.
But vehicle manufacturers have been looking at using biological materials in seats for years, and much of the interior trim already is made out of plant materials such as jute, Fedewa said. "Again, they are trying to be creative about how they message this to the market."
The announcement about lithium-ion batteries might sound promising for plug-in hybrids and electric cars, considering that manufacturers have said the batteries are among the major barriers to bringing the technologies to market.
That might not be the case, according to CalCars.org founder Felix Kramer.
After all, regular hybrids require a different type of lithium-ion battery that remains in the mid-state of charge, while plug-in hybrid and electric cars require "deep discharge" batteries with the ability to drain more of their charge without harm. So manufacturers' confidence in lithium-ion batteries for hybrids "doesn't necessarily translate" into the same confidence regarding plug-ins and electric cars, he said.
"It's definitely one further step toward confirming that lithium-ion batteries are going to go into more and more cars, but you can't necessarily conclude anything [about plug-in hybrids]," he said. "CalCars continues to say that nickel-metal-hydrides and lithium-ion can make good plug-in hybrids -- and lead-acid, too. The whole point is any of these batteries are good enough to get started."
Still, Fedewa said the announcements are good for plug-in hybrids and electric cars because they could drive down the price of lithium-ion batteries.
"The more lithium-ion batteries they can produce, the cheaper it'll be," he said. "In that way, I think it'll decrease the barrier for electrification of the vehicle.
"It may take five or seven years, but eventually people will be able to afford this type of technology."
Plug-in hybrids and electric cars are far from the only technologies that could make vehicles greener. Other examples include clean diesels and fuel-cell vehicle.
Clean Diesel Technologies (NSDQ: CDTI), based in Stamford, Conn., said earlier this week that it has licensed its particulate filtration technology to Headway Machinery, a commercial diesel-engine-exhaust company in Zhucheng, China.
And a Bridgestone tire plant in South Carolina said it would replace 43 of its battery-powered lift trucks with hydrogen fuel-cell-powered models, claiming the fuel cells will cut refueling/recharging time by three-quarters and give the trucks two to three times the range on one tank as they had on one charge.