Better Ideas

Ford in Pursuit of the Green Car

In the early 1930s, Henry Ford walked into his company’s research lab with a bag of chicken bones, dumped them on a desk and proclaimed, “See what you can do with these.” He later urged his staff to try out cantaloupes, carrots, cornstalks, cabbages and onions in his search for materials with which to build an organic car body.

Ford didn’t give up, and eventually hit upon his dream material: soybean stalks. In 1940, Ford scientists discovered that soybean oil could be used to make a high-quality paint enamel, and also molded into a fiber-based plastic. The company proclaimed the material had 10 times the shock-resistance of steel, and Ford himself delighted in demonstrating that strength by pounding on a soybean decklid with an ax. We might be driving soybean Fords today, if not for the fact that the new material was found to need a long time to cure, and did not mold well.

Unfortunately, the reputation for innovation that pushed Ford to the peak of industrial production in its early years didn’t survive its messianic founder, and the company slumbered through the 1940s and 1950s. Even such groundbreaking cars as the 1964 Mustang were technically rather pedestrian.

But now Ford is changing, and many of the changes seem to be green. In late 1997, Ford announced that it would invest $420 million in a global alliance to build automotive fuel cells with Daimler-Benz and Canada’s Ballard Power Systems, a pioneer of the technology. Fuel cells, which produce electricity from hydrogen without combustion, are still in the developmental stage, but they’re considered a prime, nearly-pollution-free candidate to replace the internal-combustion engine in the 21st century. “This is real progress,” says Jason Mark, a transportation analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “A nearly half-billion-dollar investment is nothing to sneeze at.”

The spokesman for Ford’s electric vehicle program, which includes fuel cell cars, is John Wallace, a tall, thin man with a background as a computer engineer. Interviewed in Dearborn, Michigan, not far from where Henry Ford I wielded his ax, Wallace got right to the point. “Yes, Ford has fuel cell prototypes right now, and we’ll show them when they make good public relations impact. But I’m not interested in non-drivable prototypes—I need real road-ready vehicles.”

Photo courtesy of Ford Motor Co.

Photo courtesy of Ford Motor Co.

The lightweight P2000 (right) is being promoted by Ford chairman
William Clay Ford, Jr. as the fuel cell car of the future.
Photos courtesy of Ford Motor Co.

The Ford fuel cell cars could run on methanol, or carry tanks of hydrogen. Ford consultant Sandy Thomas believes strongly that cars can carry hydrogen gas instead of running on fossil fuels, eliminating the need for costly and bulky “reformers” to extract the hydrogen. “You could argue that methanol is the worst of both worlds,” Thomas says. “There has to be an on-board reformer, and you have to build a new infrastructure. But there is excess generating capacity for methanol, and it’s the least expensive to transport.”

Thomas conjures up a truly spectacular zero-emissions system of “solar hydrogen” in which the fuel is produced from a combination of photovoltaic thermal collectors, wind generators and biomass. “Imagine,” he says, “a motor vehicle fuel so clean-burning that you could drink the effluent from the tailpipe, with urban smog a distant memory.”

Ford wants to go into production with a fuel cell family car based on the aluminum-and-composite P2000, which looks like the current Contour model, but weighs 1,000 pounds less. Would people buy a high-efficiency P2000? Cheap gas has made such cars a hard sell. Ford, in fact, may build a high-efficiency hybrid sport utility instead. And fuel cell SUVs are another likely possibility: Chrysler showed off a fuel cell Jeep, a product of its Daimler-Benz alliance, at the 1999 auto shows.

The process of cleaning up the sport utility has already begun, but it’s a bumpy ride. In early 1998, Ford stunned its competitors by announcing that its Explorers and Expeditions would henceforth meet the California low-emission vehicle standard. That decision may well have come from the company’s new chairman, William Clay Ford, Jr., a committed environmentalist who is the first family member to serve in the company leadership since the days of Henry Ford II. The younger Ford has alarmed some financial analysts who fear, as The New York Times put it, “that the scion of a billionaire family could put environmental causes ahead of profits and undermine the industry’s traditionally united front against pressures from environmental groups.”

Bill Ford has to reconcile two widely divergent missions, cleaning up the company and keeping it profitable. Sometimes these warring impulses surface simultaneously, as in a 1998 Dearborn speech in which he proclaimed both that his interests were “fully aligned with those of all shareholders” and that he wanted Ford to become “the world’s most environmentally-friendly automaker.” It may not be easy to have it both ways. Ford’s best-selling but gas-guzzling Expeditions and Lincoln Navigators are also its profit center, earning the company as much as $15,000 each. From just one Wayne, Michigan factory making sport-utility vehicles, Ford earns approximately $3.7 billion a year, enough money to pay for its recent $6.5 billion purchase of Volvo in two years.

Environmental groups have been appreciative of Ford’s public statements, but they want action, too. In February of 1999, a coalition of 12 groups, including Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, the Sierra Club and the American Lung Association, sent Bill Ford a letter saying they were “encouraged” by what he’d said and done so far, but wanted him to go further by endorsing stringent “Tier 2” emissions standards, a radical departure from the auto industry’s business as usual. “If Ford really is serious about casting itself as a green company, it has to step up to plate and say, by God we’re going to do it,” says Frank O’Donnell, executive director of the Clean Air Trust.

At presstime, Ford had not responded to the environmental coalition. Instead, in February, it introduced its huge, four-ton Excursion, a “high-end” SUV with a $50,000 price tag. The 19-foot vehicle gets only 12 miles per gallon, but could earn the company big profits. The Sierra Club’s Dan Becker called it “a rolling ad for improving auto pollution standards.”

Even if William Clay Ford was as green as David Brower, he’d still be in no easy position to satisfy the environmental community. Polluting sport-utility vehicles are currently the company’s major profit center. Real change will probably have to wait until the SUV fad is over.