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That’s the question that comes to my mind when I look at Chevrolet’s latest advertising campaign. One look at the above Web ad and you’ve got to wonder what their focus is. When you click on the ad and get to their site (but not from here ’cause they’re not paying me) you see they’ve listed every popular fuel saving and energy concept known to the auto world. On their site they detail all of these, but I have to wonder if they’re really putting their all into it or simply greenwashing us. There’s no doubt they’re having an impact with their advertising, but to what extent?

The first thing that comes to my attention is that there are relatively few cars in their fleet that get over 30 mpg. According to their Web site, there are exactly three (out of 16). They are the Malibu Hybrid (not even released yet), the Cobalt and the Aveo, and they get 32, 33 and 34 mpg respectively. One would expect the hybrid to get the highest, but it doesn’t. How do they expect to compete with the top selling Prius when they can’t even get close on mileage? Oh yeah, they don’t. After a little digging, it’s clear to see that they are more interested in using hybrid technology to improve the performance of and sell more SUVs than they are in increasing mileage. Their first “full-size hybrid SUV” ad page carefully makes no claims to “fuel efficiency;” rather, it’s all about delivering power, capability and performance.

And then there’s the E85 ethanol “FlexFuel” vehicles they’ve been hyping for a while now. These things are a boondoggle every step of the way. First of all, the likelihood of finding a station near you that sells E85 is very slim (the nearest one to Jackson is in Idaho Falls—80+ miles away), and second, they have employed this technology in only their largest vehicles—two of seven FlexFuel vehicles use “only” a V6 engine, while the rest use their largest V8s. Add to that the thorny issue that ethanol has become and the practicality of these vehicles becomes questionable. Some reports indicate that it takes more energy to produce ethanol from grain than the combustion of ethanol produces. And we’re now dedicating an increasing amount of agricultural land to growing corn for fuel rather than growing crops for us to eat. Something about that just doesn’t make sense.

But regardless of where the science on efficiency of energy production through biofuels lands, what’s even more concerning is when you begin to understand just why GM has put so much effort into this FlexFuel program. It turns out that they get major tax breaks for simply producing vehicles that can run on alternative energy, regardless of whether you ever run E85 in them. And their tax breaks are based on the amount of fuel you might use, not what you actually use. So they get the biggest tax break for simply making their largest FlexFuel vehicles able to run on ethanol (an actual cost to GM of about $50 per vehicle). But not only does it not matter for their tax breaks if you never put E85 into the tank, by running regular gasoline in them it actually increases the amount of gasoline consumed and greenhouse gases produced. You don’t have to check the stock portfolios of the automotive industry execs to understand which side their bread’s buttered on.

I’d like to give GM the benefit of the doubt on their energy efficiency standpoint because it appears they’re at least making an effort to change the status quo, but so far all I see is an effort to take advantage of and manipulate the system in their favor. And as long as we consumers buy into their greenwashing, we’re not giving them any reason to change their tune.
Next post on this subject we’ll take a look at another of their so-called Fuel Solutions.