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 Spring 2011

On the Road

Promising Signs on the Showroom Floor

As part of our campaign to cut projected U.S. petroleum consumption in half by 2030, UCS has been actively helping consumers become smarter shoppers (through hybridcenter.org), pushing federal agencies for stronger fuel economy and emissions standards, and engaging with automakers to influence their vehicle designs. The fruits of these efforts were on display in November at the Los Angeles Auto Show, which has become a preeminent green vehicle showcase. My colleagues and I headed to L.A. following the release of our  Automaker Rankings 2010 report—the fifth in a series that regularly evaluates manufacturers’ bottom-line environmental performance—to present the winner of this year’s rankings with our Greenest Automaker award and to see what new options automakers have to offer.

A Force for Change in the Industry

For the last 10 years, our Automaker Rankings reports have publicly rewarded the good actors and exposed the bad, garnering considerable attention from the media and, increasingly, the manufacturers themselves. Our analysis is used by reporters from auto blogs to the New York Times to track industry performance and provide valuable and credible context when manufacturers attempt to undermine regulatory improvements. The 2010 report also prompted private conversations with multiple CEOs and other high-level industry executives, affording UCS a valuable opportunity to exchange perspectives with key industry decision makers.

This year, I had the privilege of presenting the Greenest Automaker award to Honda’s President and CEO Takanobu Ito, who was understandably pleased with his company’s fifth consecutive first-place finish—though Honda barely squeaked out a victory this time over Toyota and Hyundai. (On the other end of the spectrum was Chrysler, which ranked worst among the eight major automakers.) It should be noted that as fuel economy and emissions standards become more stringent over time, the difference between automakers will narrow even more, forcing Honda to work harder if it wants to continue touting its status as Greenest Automaker in its advertising.

Where Hype Meets Hardware

In addition to presenting the award, I spent a few days at the show analyzing products and talking about the latest developments with a host of reporters. One of the highlights, in my opinion, was seeing several new vehicles that can go 40 miles per gallon of gas on the highway using conventional technology, and for a reasonable price—an achievement that automakers dismissed as implausible only a few years ago. My colleagues and I also had the opportunity to walk the show floor with some local UCS members, answering their questions and giving them the tools to not only make better purchase decisions but also help their friends and relatives do so.

I was pleased to see that, after many years of stagnation, some automakers are making smarter product choices with new designs, new technologies, and new approaches. Others, however, continue to deploy their lawyers and lobbyists to fight progress. Persistent efforts by consumers, government, and forward-looking industry leaders can make further progress possible, and UCS will be there to help spur innovation and hold the industry accountable every step of the way.

—Jim Kliesch, research director, UCS Clean Vehicles Program

See how your car’s manufacturer stacks up in our Automaker Rankings 2010 report.