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Volvo Aims to Change the Definition of “Green Cars”

Leon Kaye | Monday July 19th, 2010 | 0 Comments

The impact of automobile emissions on global warming is now widely understood and sparks little debate.  Finding a solution, however, is where trouble and dispute often lie.

The Euro zone in particular has been successful at curbing CO2 emissions.  Punitive fines, European Union mandates, and taxation schemes have led European automobile manufacturers and consumers to become highly aware of their cars’ carbon footprint.  In fact, there is now little variation in carbon emissions among the various car makers and models within the EU market.

Meanwhile, those of us across the pond, who too often drive tanks with an embarrassingly low miles per gallon performance, wring our hands wondering what we can do to get even close to reaching our European cousins’ fuel efficiency.  Hybrid and plug-in vehicles are generating more excitement at clean tech conferences and auto shows, where vendors crow about reduced carbon emissions and consumers beam at the thought of driving guilt free.

But with the focus on carbon emissions, is it possible that we are all missing the bigger pictureVolvo apparently thinks so, and is asking their companies to look beyond a car’s CO2 footprint.

The Swedish automobile manufacturer just launched a campaign, Emissions Equality, which Volvo says will increase consumer awareness of the entire emissions picture when purchasing a car.  While carbon emission levels may be consistent among makes and models, other emission rates are all over the map, including nitrogen oxide (NOx) and particulate matter (PM).   NOx causes smog because it increases ground-level ozone, while PM is also toxic because it can cause a bevy of cardiac and respiratory problems.  All this complexity, of course, leads us to the flip side of European automobiles’ fuel efficiency, which is partly due to the widespread use of diesel, the fuel of choice that in turn releases higher levels of NOx and PM than gasoline.

Several reasons lie behind Volvo’s latest campaign.  The company’s models rank low in many surveys that evaluate cars’ overall emissions, though Volvo does not run as poorly as other laggards including Range Rover and Jeep (which, of course, like Volvo, manufacture larger cars).  Volvo is also a leader in the research and development of dimethyl ether (DME) as a vehicle fuel—and DME results in much lower NOx and PM emissions than fossil-based fuels.  And of course marketing has a role:  Volvo is offering a new twist to potential customers who are looking for a low-environmental impact car purchase. Reframing the debate could also create a first-mover advantage for Volvo, and to that end, the company is close to completing iPhone and Droid apps that will show their models’ tailpipe emissions dating back to 2001.  Finally, the interest in demonstrating corporate social responsibility should not be ignored either—building more trust between company and consumer is just a start for Volvo.

Volvo’s reasons, whether they show genuine or cynical motives, reveal the need for a discussion over other emissions and how they could affect consumer choices in the long run.  Will other companies follow Volvo’s lead, or will they just hope that interest in a conversation beyond CO2 fades within a few months?  Could this spark more of a move to electric vehicles?  We don’t have the answers quite yet; so tune back in about a year.


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