At the Geneva Motor Show, All That Glitters is Green

At the Geneva Motor Show, All That Glitters is Green

GENEVA - If there’s a common thread among the 170 premieres at this year’s Geneva Motor Show, it’s sustainable mobility. A press preview, followed by public days March 3-14, kicks off the 81st showing of what has become Europe’s top event for automobiles.

Almost every significant new introduction, from Kia’s redesigned Picanto -- a city car with CO2 emissions promised to be as low as 90 grams per kilometer, roughly equivalent to 57 U.S. mpg -- to the imposing Phantom 102EX, an experimental all-electric version of the Rolls-Royce flagship, was unveiled with “sustainability,” “responsibility,” or “technology for tomorrow” as a key theme.

Sustainability is so mainstream at this year’s show that the special “Green Pavilion” seems redundant. Rather, the big news was on the main floor. Among the highlights:

  • Opel, GM’s European arm, revealed the production version of the Ampera, a sibling of the 2011 Chevrolet Volt;
  • Ford re-affirmed its strategy to have five new electrified vehicles in Europe by 2013 (and the same number in North America by 2012);
  • Nissan and Fiat showed smaller engines that produce the same or better power than the less-efficient versions they replace;
  • Toyota showed a prototype all-electric version of its iQ city car, as well as the production model of the Prius+, a seven-seat MPV version of the car that arguably made hybrids mainstream;
  • In addition to the over-the-top Rolls-Royce Phantom, claimed to use the world’s largest automotive battery -- it alone weighs 1,400 pounds -- the BMW group showed a new version of its ActiveE concept and a truly mini Mini concept called the Rocketman that’s closer in size to the 1959 original than the current Cooper and its even-larger Clubman and Countryman cousins;
  • PSA Peugeot Citroen announced that it will team with BMW on hybrids and plug-in electric vehicles.

Nearly every automaker has at least one green sub-brand, often using the nomenclature of “eco” or “blue.” For example, Kia uses ecoDynamics, Ford has ECOnetic and EcoBoost, Seat claims Ecomotive, and Renault boasts Eco2. From Mercedes we have BlueEFFICIENCY and Bluetec; VW offers BlueMotion, and Peugeot uses Blue Lion to denote its most efficient offerings.

Not to be outdone in the name game, Land Rover showed the concept Range_e Range Rover, a plug-in diesel hybrid version that’s said to be sold in 2013. And Skoda, the Volkswagen-owned Czech brand, even changed its logo from what it calls “natural” green to “lush” green -- and its executive team sported matching leaf-colored neckties to celebrate.

Some of these developments will make their way across the Atlantic, but the focus of Geneva is the European market, and it is progressing significantly faster than that of the United States.

Different sensibilities or different policies?

It could be easy to conclude that European sensibilities and history makes the continent’s focus on sustainable transport stronger than that in the United States. After all, Europe is more densely populated, its streets narrower, and its commutes shorter than those we’re accustomed to in the U.S., so smaller vehicles and more public transit just make sense.

Perhaps this is true. But a comparison between the energy and transportation policies of the United States and Western Europe shows that the difference in the way we drive isn’t so much about different sensibilities as it is different policies and regulations.

For starters, fuel is more than twice as expensive in Europe, thanks to higher taxes. But the cost differences don’t end there. Whereas vehicle taxes in the U.S. vary by state but depend mostly on the value or broad weight class of vehicle, governments here have imposed increasingly strict “stairstep” tax policies that make the cleanest vehicles tax-free, and the dirtiest relatively expensive compared to average U.S. registration fees.

Combined with the price of fuel, the total-cost-of-ownership difference between an efficient car and a gas-guzzler is significant in Europe, and inconsequential in the U.S. This clearly drives purchase consideration, judging by the large number of show cars that proudly display their emissions figures (grams of CO2 emitted per kilometer) in large decals on each side.

In contrast to the strong demand-side incentives for greener vehicles in Europe, the U.S. has relied mainly upon supply-side policies like CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) that penalize automakers if they don’t meet a target for a complex calculation across their annual sales fleet.

Both policy approaches have their supporters and detractors. But if we’re serious about meeting the challenge of reducing the environmental impact of personal transportation and changing consumer car-buying behaviors, Europe’s approach -- if this year’s Geneva Motor Show is any indication -- seems to be working better than ours. With oil hovering around $100 per barrel, this really is fuel for thought to rethink our policies back home in America.

The GreenOrder Transportation Team also contributed to this post.

Images courtesy of Ted Grozier.