Environment

Ford Gets an 'F' for Fuel Efficiency

Two groups launch a nationwide campaign to tell Ford Motor Co. to clean up its act and to encourage Americans to declare independence from oil.
In a campaign that kicked off on the Fourth of July, residents of Detroit and other U.S. cities including Philadelphia, San Francisco, New York and Washington D.C. are seeing posters in their areas asking them to "Declare Independence from Oil."

The posters depict the Statue of Liberty wearing a gas mask to filter out greenhouse gases from the cars, trucks, SUVs and other vehicles crowding the nation's roadways.

The first step in this environmental revolution, according to the advertising campaign spearheaded by the groups Global Exchange and the Rainforest Action Network, is to demand that Ford Motor Company drastically cut its vehicles' emissions. These groups want Ford to increase its fuel efficiency to 50 miles per gallon by 2010, and to cut all tailpipe emissions by 2020.

Greenwashing Reality

Ford's own ad campaign is in high gear, with the company marketing itself as environmentally friendly. Full-page ads in glossy magazines like National Geographic, The New Yorker and Mother Jones showcase Ford's new green assembly plant and its new hybrid SUV.

Critics call this ad campaign "greenwashing." According to current EPA reports, Ford's average fuel efficiency is the worst of all manufacturers selling in the U.S. Ford's hybrid SUVs will comprise only one tenth of a percent of its total vehicle output for this year.

While its "green" plant on the historic Rouge site in Dearborn, just outside Detroit, is an impressive example of environmentally friendly architecture, it will be turning out hundreds of thousands of gas-guzzling vehicles – including the massive F-150 truck, each of which releases 50 to 100 tons of carbon into the atmosphere in its lifetime.

"The plant may be an environmental dream, but it's turning out environmental nightmares," said Jennifer Krill, program director of RAN's Jumpstart Ford campaign. "Ford's really leading the industry in the wrong way and then trying to market its way out of it."

Taking It Seriously

The Declare Independence from Oil posters will stay up for about three weeks in bus shelters and other locations, in a campaign created by the same company responsible for the iPod marketing campaign.

The posters are part of the initiative that RAN and Global Exchange launched last summer around Ford's 100th anniversary celebration. Since then they have had two meetings and a teleconference with top Ford vice-presidents, according to Global Exchange clean car campaigner Jason Mark. He said the company appears to be listening to their demands, yet it has not taken much action. (Ford officials could not be reached for this story).

"I think they realize the campaign is connecting with people's fears about oil dependence, including rising gas prices and the link with the war in Iraq," said Mark. "We're glad they're taking it seriously, but they have not done nearly enough fast enough."

Mark added that the groups "aren't asking anything from Ford that we're not also asking of other companies. But we can't target them all, so we figured why not start with the worst. If a company like Ford can make a U-turn in their policy, that would have a ripple effect."

Clean It Up

Various advocates of clean power and hybrid cars say that a 40 to 50 mpg fuel efficiency average is feasible with current technology. Currently, Ford's average fuel efficiency for 2004 models stands at 21.9 mpg, followed by Daimler Chrysler with 23.8, Nissan with 24.2 and Volkswagen and General Motors with 24.9. Toyota and Honda score significantly better with 27.6 and 27.7, respectively. U.S. EPA report show Ford with the worst fuel efficiency for the past five years.

"The Japanese are ahead of us in fuel efficiency," noted Brad Berman, founder of www.hybridcars.com. "There are various reasons I could speculate on. For one, they have higher gas prices. When gas prices go up here, I see a corresponding rise in interest in my site."

Berman noted that Ford is only planning to manufacture 20,000 of its 2005 Escape hybrid SUVs, with only about 3,000 slated for release by the end of this year. By contrast Toyota is releasing about 47,000 hybrid Priuses in the U.S. this year and about 100,000 total internationally.

"The demand is solid enough now that any hybrid which is built will be sold," Berman said. "But the manufacturers are being overly cautious. I think they'd rather just make a few and sell them right away."

Jason Marks points to the Prius as a positive example of what Ford could be doing. "Toyota's taken more of a lead," he said.

But Berman thinks even Toyota is being too conservative in its marketing and promotion of hybrids, as evidenced by the months-long waiting lists for Priuses.

"When they're not making enough, it essentially puts a premium on them and allows dealers to really mark them up," he said.

The Car For Anti-Car People

Berman describes hybrids as "the first car for anti-car people," and speculates they can change the whole way people view their vehicles' effect on the environment.

"Really interesting things start to happen when you drive a car where you can see the fuel economy numbers on your dashboard," he said. "A gallon of gas produces 19 pounds of carbon dioxide. If I'm driving a car that gets 50 mpg, I'll produce 19 pounds in 50 miles. If I'm driving a car that gets only 25 miles a gallon, I'm producing 38 pounds of carbon dioxide in the same amount of time. You start to make the connections."

The goal of zero tailpipe emissions by 2020 might sound overly ambitious – even hybrids have emissions. But experts say emissions could be reduced to virtually nothing through a combination of hybrid, electric and hydrogen burning technology.

"It's not a question of can they do it," said Krill. "They must do it. The banking industry and insurance industry are having to formulate policies to address global warming. Even the Pentagon has a policy on global warming. Ford, the premiere American motor company, can't not have a policy to address global warming."

Escaping the Escape

On its website Ford defines the Escape as a small SUV with all the benefits of a regular SUV, with hybrid technology. The Escape is supposed to get 35 to 40 miles per gallon.

The website also declares that, "The environment has long been a part of Ford's philosophy." Pictured is the Ford Rouge plant, which boasts a porous pavement parking lot and 10.4 acres of rooftop gardens that provide natural storm water filtration and air purification systems. The company bills the plant, which opened in June and is expected to draw 300,000 tourists a year, as proof of "the advances Ford Motor Company is making toward a more environmentally responsible future," or "the Greening of the Blue Oval," referring to the company's logo.

Mark and others involved in the campaign say if this is the Ford's true mission, the auto manufacturer should have no problem meeting the demands of the Independence from Oil campaign.

"We're trying to close the gap between rhetoric and reality," he said.

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Kari Lydersen, a regular contributor to AlterNet, also writes for the Washington Post and is an instructor for the Urban Youth International Journalism Program in Chicago. She can be reached at [email protected].