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Protestors Disrupt Wagoner Speech


Rick Wagoner

Rick Wagoner

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General Motors intends to sharply increase fuel economy and reduce automotive emissions by adopting alternative fuels and electric powertrains, the automaker’s CEO, Rick Wagoner, announced during the keynote speech at the 2006 Los Angeles auto show on Wednesday.

“Going forward,” he pronounced, “it is highly unlikely that oil alone will provide the energy for all the world’s transportation needs,” Wagoner stressed, during a decidedly environmentally-friendly address. Going green, he added, was not only a socially-conscious decision, but “reduce(s) the risks of our business and also improves profitability.”

 

A significant part of Wagoner’s remarks focused on General Motors’ intention to launch production of so-called “plug-in” hybrids. The technology is similar to existing hybrid-electric vehicles, but allows a motorist to tap into the electric power grid to charge up a set of oversized batteries. That would allow a plug-in hybrid vehicle to go for as much as 50 to 75 miles, according to GM, on electric power alone. For longer drives, the car would rely on its internal combustion engine.

 

Even that might be run on alternative fuels, said Wagoner. GM is putting a particular emphasis on ethanol-based E85. That fuel, using 85 percent alcohol and 15 percent gasoline, would, at least in theory, sharply reduce America’s dependence on imported oil. But skeptics question if there are enough ethanol resources to replace more than a fraction of the oil used for motor vehicle needs. And they also note that ethanol actually reduces an automobile’s mileage.

 

Even so, federal rules actually raise sharply the reported mileage of an ethanol vehicle, something critics contend manufacturers like GM are exploiting for their own, rather than the public’s benefit. In a subsequent conversation with TheCarConnection.com, Wagoner insisted those bonus points are “consistent” with efforts to reduce petroleum usage. And he pointed out that the government is providing hefty incentives to support hybrid vehicle technology, even though it often delivers far less mileage than promised. To skeptics, the executive suggested, “I say, keep an open mind.”

 

Wagoner cautioned that it is difficult to tell how well many of the new, green technologies and fuels will worked – nor is it clear whether they will be accepted by consumers. Costs need to come down sharply, he said, and in many cases, including plug-in hybrids, there is still a lot of technological development work left to be done. Even so, GM’s CEO said it is “very possible” that alternative fuel and electric powertrains could account for at least 15 percent of U.S. motor vehicle sales by the middle of the next decade.

 

(That number doesn’t include bi-fuel vehicles that can ran on either gasoline or ethanol, or a mix of both. By decade’s end, as much as half of all new domestic products will be bi-fuel capable.)

 

At the end of the day, Wagoner concluded, “this transition will be as important as the transformation (100 years ago) from horses to horsepower.”

 

If CEO Wagoner thought he’d won over skeptics with his enviro-friendly keynote speech opening the L.A. Auto Show, he was quickly shown a different point of view. As the GM executive wrapped up his speech and prepared for a question-and-answer session with reporters, a pair of well-dressed protesters rushed the stage, quickly unfurling a banner and demanding that Wagoner promise to sharply boost the mileage of General Motors vehicles.

 

After a moment of confusion, the CEO pushed the pair away from the podium. They were then quickly shooed away by security, holding up their banner as they wandered away among hundreds of reporters gathered for the opening of the show. But the event underscored the growing demand, especially among environmental activists, for the auto industry to sharply improve mileage and reduce vehicle emissions.

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