Volkswagen Bets on Greener Technologies

VW is the second largest automaker in the world and Europe’s biggest. So I was excited to read VW’s recent announcement that it is fundamentally restructuring its entire group, setting big hairy audacious goals to invest 2/3 of its $80+ billion of R&D money from now to 2016 on “more efficient vehicles, powertrains and technologies, as well as environmentally compatible production.”

As an advocate of biodiesel, I sought out a Volkswagen Jetta TDI when I moved from my car-free mecca San Francisco to the car-dependent Honolulu last year. It’s one of the few diesel options out there besides giant pickup trucks, which, even on biodiesel, are not very sustainable because they’re largely unnecessary and impractical for me (since I don’t own a landscaping company), and fairly wasteful as gas-guzzlers. The TDI also used to get 42 in the city and 49 on the highway, meaning better than average fuel economy.

Perversely, new VW TDI models get much worse gas mileage than the older models. The new TDI Jetta gets 30/42, whereas the model I settled on, a 2005, gets 38/46. Part of the equation is that VW revamped its diesel technology to make the engine run more cleanly. The reduced pollution came with a cost to efficiency, it appears, as the newer models claim 90% less sooty emissions than “diesel engines of old.”

Still, it’s tempting to view Volkswagen as a greener car. It’s German, and Germany has a Green Party President and is the world’s leader in solar power. Will the new R&D push clean things up?

It’s safe to assume that this green line does not include some of VW’s more eye-catching new properties, like the Bugatti Veyron Grand Sport Vitesse (1200 horsepower, 0-60 in 2.6 seconds, 250+ mph top speed) and the new Bentley SUV, which promises to be the most expensive SUV on the planet.

Still, to drive a sedan that gets 40 or so mpg AND can use B100 (100% biodiesel) fuel interchangeably with regular diesel is a grand thing and a source of great pride for many. VW can tap into the power of this proud consumer demographic, especially as more attention is turned toward homemade biofuels and local production. While refueling at one of the dozen or so 76 stations in Honolulu that carries made-in-Hawaii biodiesel about a month ago, I had a great conversation with a guy who you might not put in the traditional demographic of a Whole Foods/LOHAS consumer. He was a big fella, spoke with a thick Pidgin accent, and drove a fairly large pickup truck. But plastered across the back of his Ford F-250 was a homemade sticker showing the pride he had in his biodiesel:

I, for one, look forward to using B100 biodiesel for all my personal transportation needs well into the future, and could become a very loyal VW customer if they’re able to continue to¬† produce an efficient, diesel engine. I often wonder where Ford, Chevy, and Chrysler are on this, and wonder why their only diesel offerings are giant trucks.

I’ve been wondering this for a dozen years, and I’m still kind of wondering.

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Scott Cooney, Principal of GreenBusinessOwner.com and author of Build a Green Small Business: Profitable Ways to Become an Ecopreneur (McGraw-Hill, November 2008), is also a serial ecopreneur who has started and grown several green businesses and consulted several other green startups. He co-founded the ReDirect Guide, a green business directory, in Salt Lake City, UT. He greened his home in Salt Lake City, including xeriscaping, an organic orchard, extra natural fiber insulation, a 1.8kW solar PV array, on-demand hot water, energy star appliances, and natural paints. He is a vegetarian, an avid cyclist, ultimate frisbee player, and surfer, and currently lives in the sunny Mission district of San Francisco. Scott is working on his second book, a look at microeconomics in the green sector.In June 2010, Scott launched GreenBusinessOwner.com, a sustainability consulting firm dedicated to providing solutions to common business problems by leveraging the power of the triple bottom line. Focused exclusively on small business, GBO's mission is to facilitate the creation and success of small, green businesses.