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green@work : Magazine : Back Issues : Nov/Dec 2003 : Cover Story

Cover Story

Start Your Clean, Green Engines
Challenge Bibendum 2003 continues to drive the dream that vehicles of the future can be clean, safe reliable and fun to drive.



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In His Own Words: A Dialogue with Edovard Michelin

Sustainable mobility is certainly one of the most topical and vital matters facing a wide range of global constituencies: governments, business and industry, communities and consumers. The issues involved are no less broad, ripe with opportunity yet mired with daunting problems and complexities. Vehicle manufacturers, energy suppliers, policy makers and government bodies are all working on solutions more or less independently of each other and often in disagreement about the directions in which their efforts should go.

Certain facts are clear, however. Vehicles are the people’s preferred mode of transportation and are leading the way into our future. It is estimated that by 2020 a billion vehicles will be traveling the world’s roads, too many of them dependent on a single energy source. Other compelling issues include air quality, global warming, homeland security (not just in the U.S., but worldwide) and foreign policy.

While tremendous innovation is going on within the automotive industry with eventual outcomes impossible to predict, one thing is obvious—vehicles will continue to run on tires in the future, and the world’s largest producer of tires has an understandably vested interest in participating in the evolution of sustainable mobility. Five times since 1998, Michelin has organized and produced the Challenge Bibendum, considered a premier global event that brings together the world’s most advanced technology vehicles and compares them in head-to-head competition. The event is open to all energy sources—gasoline, electric, diesel, bio-fuel, hydrogen, natural gas and liquid petroleum gas. Participation this year included such manufacturers as Audi, Honda, BMW, Daimler-Chrysler, Ford Motor Co., General Motors, Hyundai, Isuzu, Nissan, Toyota and Volvo.

Named after Bibendum, the roly-poly corporate Michelin symbol, the Challenge provides a platform for debate, facilitates the procedures and creates an event for the industry with no political or commercial agenda, according to the company’s CEO, Edouard Michelin. Difficult decisions within the transportation industry will have to be made, he said, that are complex and trans-national in scope. As an example, solutions do not lie simply in raising automobile efficiency standards or drilling new oil fields in Alaska. The Department of Energy’s Thomas Gross believes that even a 60 percent increase in the CAFE standards and draining ANWAR of all its reserves will not close the gap between demand and supply. A totally new approach is needed.

The vision of the Challenge Bibendum is that mobility must be developed with a respect for the environment while realizing that people must be enabled to move themselves and their goods freely. The issues are more complicated in developing countries where the demand for individual mobility is rapidly increasing. According to Dan Sperling, a transportation specialist at the University of California-Davis, personal transport is now available at low cost and, therefore, at very low incomes. The result is rapidly increasing energy use, greenhouse gas emissions, traffic congestion, traffic deaths and pollution.

Worldwide, one of the key concerns is the need to reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, believed to be a major cause of global warming. The average car on the road today uses about 600 gallons of gasoline annually resulting in the release of six tons of CO2 into the environment. The solutions to atmospheric pollution will be based on reducing fuel consumption and improving engine performance as well as diversifying energy sources. In addition, halting the depletion of fossil fuel resources will depend on developing new alternative energy sources and inventing new types of engines to use them. Accomplishing these goals requires a commitment to a radically different automotive future, one most in the industry seem ready, if not eager, to make.

Measuring and reporting progress toward sustainable mobility goals is essential and why, at the core of the Challenge Bibendum, is a friendly competition in which more than 100 participating vehicles go head to head in a series of tests that rate vehicles on emissions, acceleration, braking, handling, noise and energy efficiency. The purpose of the tests, according to Michelin, is to demonstrate that the vehicles of the future can be clean, safe, reliable and fun to drive. A wide range of energy and propulsion systems were tested; but this year the distribution of technologies was markedly different. Hydrogen powered cars (fuel cells and ICEs), diesels and several hybrid technologies dominated the field compared with 2002 when compressed natural gas (CNG), liquid natural gas (LNG) and electric vehicles predominated. Also new to this year’s event were commercial vehicles, such as heavy-duty trucks and buses, which made their first showing at the Challenge Bibendum and did quite well, especially in emissions testing with some achieving zero-emissions numbers—the ultimate goal for all vehicles.

All the different technologies represented in the competition received recognition. “Overall, the progress toward sustainable mobility by all of the participating technologies and energy sources is very impressive,” said Patrick Oliva, director of the Challenge Bibendum. “There is no single choice, no one path alone to achieving our ultimate goal of environmentally-positive road transportation that is enjoyable to drive and safe for drivers and passengers. Each year, the variety of technologies and creative innovations displayed offers proof that sustainable mobility is within our grasp.”

The prevailing sentiment at the Challenge Bibendum was that the hydrogen fuel cell is the automotive technology of the future. One of the most popular vehicles at the show was GM’s Hy-Wire, said to be the first road-ready automobile that uses a combination of fuel cell with drive-by-wire technology. Although a prototype vehicle at this time, by 2010 many predict that it and other fuel cell technology automobiles will be widely commercially available. As admirable as that goal is, it has come under criticism from some environmentalists who claim that the focus on these emerging technologies draws attention away from the fact that the automakers are ignoring improvements they could make immediately, such as getting more gas/electric hybrid vehicles out on the road.

Elizabeth Lowery, director for environmental affairs for General Motors, counters by saying that GM’s vision of the clean car is multi-faceted. “We are working on the fuel cell, but also on conventional internal combustion engines and hybrids. We are getting ready to introduce a dozen models between now and 2007. GM is very proud of this offering.”

Selling these clean vehicles presents other challenges. J.D. Powers & Associates surveyed consumers about whether they really care about fuel economy; the conclusion—not much. It is the eighth of measured influences cited by buyers when choosing a new car or truck with drive, handling and performance rating much higher. Moreover, asserts Walter McManus, J.D. Powers’ executive director of Global Forecasting, fuel prices in the U.S. are low and buyers are looking for room, power and amenities. However, consumer interest may be growing. Over 60 percent said they would consider clean diesel or hybrid vehicles.

The market for the Toyota Prius, the most successful commercially available hybrid, is still small because many still think of it as an experimental, stylistically unexciting and inferior performing car. However, the all-new 2004 model was awarded both the Style Advancement Award and the Technical Integration Award for production vehicles at the Challenge Bibendum. Larger, cleaner and more powerful, the 2004 Prius gets twice the fuel mileage of the best 2003 mid-sized sedan in the U.S. It will be available to consumers in the fall and Toyota reports a heavy pre-release order backlog. Perhaps this is the car that will spur the risk-adverse buying public into taking a chance on a new technology.

The Challenge Bibendum is moving for the first time to Asia in 2004 when Shanghai, China will host the world’s auto industry as it continues its quest for sustainable mobility. The venue will present both unique opportunities and hurdles as China is the world’s fastest-growing car market, with a rapid expansion of production and with sales up 73 percent this year. It remains to be seen whether China can sustain its eight percent annual economic growth while promoting respect for the environment. The hundreds of journalists who cover the Challenge Bibendum will surely keep a watchful eye.


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