When An Environmentalist Has Dinner With A Hummer Executive

When An Environmentalist Has Dinner With A Hummer Executive

ByGroovy Green Apr 6, 2007

I’ve just returned from the 2007 NY International Auto Show and it’s time to start releasing the jumble of thoughts, videos, and other interesting experiences I had along the way. General Motors extended an invitation to Groovy Green and Ecorazzi to attend the event and meet with top executives to discuss the latest green issues. Being somewhat of a cynic towards the pairing of the words “green” and “American auto industry”, I jumped at the opportunity.

So, it was a somewhat awkward moment when I took my seat at dinner and found myself sitting next to Hummer’s Executive Director, Ross Hendrix. He even had a giant “H” pin on his sport coat lapel. To my left was GM’s Vice President of Environment and Energy, Beth Lowery. She mentioned to me that no less than two years ago, it would have been impossible to gather executives in the same room as journalists; much less environmental bloggers. The level of access GM is providing is unprecedented. Even greater, they’re willing to listen and talk. I dove right in.

The first ice-breaker out of my mouth: “So Ross, when is Hummer going green?” He laughed and then responded that the company was working very hard to make its fleet more fuel-efficient. In his opinion, the industry is rapidly changing with regards to alternative fuels and efforts to not prepare for this shift in thinking would kill the business. Additionally, Hummer is planning on going diesel across the line by the end of the decade — a move that would further encourage greater use of ethanol or biodiesel.

Many of the discussions I had with executives often included the sentence, “it’s what the consumer market wants.” To a large degree, the American public drives the impetus for change and with a gallon of gas still cheaper than bottled water, there isn’t much concern over fuel-efficiency. Yet.

I asked Ross if his company’s reputation as the “big bad” with environmentalists made it difficult to change the mind of anyone; no matter what steps might be taken to improve their vehicles. He said that such a stigma did impact policy — HUMMER, for instance, isn’t going to declare themselves carbon-neutral anytime soon. Most people would just label the move as green-washing. Instead, Hendrix wishes to focus on changes of substance. The company is releasing their new H3 “compact” SUV with a 20 mpg rating (likely not real-world mileage) and lighter chassis. The 2008 H2 (their best-selling model brand) is also several hundred pounds lighter and features a new engine with about 10% greater fuel-efficiency over past models.

I asked the whole “Why not go electric” question; but the obvious answer of the logistics in taking a HUMMER electric was given right back to me. The amount of power needed push the weight of this vehicle forward is immense. For the time being, the greatest alternative to petrol is Hydrogen. Most experts agree such visions of a hydrogen economy are easily 15-30 years away.

One interesting tidbit that may or may not be legal to share here is a potential relationship between McDonald’s and HUMMER. Hendrix mentioned that since the two work together on many other projects (kids toys, promotions, charity), an agreement to use the chain’s large production of vegetable waste oil may be in the cards. This is obviously a few years away, but it begs the question: Could large American restaurant chains like McDonald’s be interested in supplying vegetable oil to companies or fleets? Will people be able to fuel up at McDonald’s or Wendy’s in the future as well as order a Happy Meal? Take this information as simple dinner conversation; but the most interesting part is that HUMMER is talking about it.

Overall, the conversation with Hendrix was polite and candid. No question I asked was too risky to respond to; and the fact that not just Hummer, but GM as a whole, is acknowledging the issues of climate change, emissions, and fuel economy is encouraging. So much of what I heard was “two-three years away”, so we’ll see if dinner over scallops brings any real results a couple years from now.

Since this is just the start of my coverage and discussions with GM, stay tuned for further interviews, videos, and other insights into the future plans of the world’s largest automaker.