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For greener machines, a look beyond fuel economy

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Associated Press / January 27, 2008

DETROIT - From concept cars partially made of discarded soft-drink bottles to plant-based material used in seats and upholstery, automakers are looking at ways to make their vehicles more environmentally friendly.

While efforts to roll out more gas-saving hybrids, meet tougher fuel economy standards, and cut tailpipe emissions get much of the attention, what goes into making cars is another key part of efforts to green the auto industry.

"The whole issue around sustainability is not just about fuel economy," Mark Fields, Ford Motor Co.'s president for the Americas, said after unveiling the Lincoln MKT concept touring vehicle during media previews at the North American International Auto Show. "It's not just about lowering CO2 levels. It's being good stewards in the environment, and that means the materials that you use."

The Lincoln MKT, which partially is made of plastic bottles and polyester waste, underscores Ford's hope to commercialize greener materials and appeal to more environmentally minded drivers. It's part of increasing attention industrywide to the overall environmental impact of vehicles.

But unlike Toyota Motor Corp.'s gas-sipping hybrid Prius, which offers drivers instant recognition for buying an environmentally friendly vehicle, car bodies made out of recycled materials and interiors that feature plant-based fabrics aren't easily noticeable to buyers, if at all.

"It's an open question whether people are willing to pay more," said Jack Nerad, executive market analyst for Irvine, Calif.-based Kelley Blue Book, who noted such offerings typically come at a premium. "A lot of people want this kind of thing, as they want better fuel economy, but they are not willing to pay more."

It may be more difficult than selling a hybrid, but Nerad said automakers should be able to market these materials to buyers.

"Prius makes a statement about the people who drive them," Nerad said, "so there is this brand opportunity as people are more aware."

Taking steps to make vehicles more environmentally friendly is a given across the industry, auto analysts say. Aaron Bragman, an analyst with the consulting firm Global Insight in Troy, Mich., said, "It's expected that you're making every single effort in every single line to be green."

At the show, Honda Motor Co.'s FCX Clarity hydrogen fuel cell-powered car uses plant-based fabric for its interior.

At the display for Daimler AG's Mercedes-Benz, the automaker highlights that some of its vehicles were awarded an environmental certification for factors including components made from recycled materials.

During press previews, Johnson Controls Inc. showed off its new Ecobond headliner - part of the interior roof of vehicles - that uses soy-based material and natural fibers instead of the traditional fiberglass. The Ecobond - made from fibers including hemp and flax - also cuts vehicle weight.

"This approach can help increase fuel economy and reduce carbon emissions," said Jeff Williams, group vice president for Johnson Controls. And it "is also easier to recycle at the end of the vehicle's useful life."

Johnson Controls sells a soy-based seat foam that it says is being used in 1.6 million vehicles a year for the 2008 model year. And Ford has a soy-based seat foam, which is on Ford's 2008 Mustang, F-150 pickup, and Expedition sport utility vehicle, as well as the Lincoln Navigator SUV.

Ford says most automakers use about 30 pounds of petroleum-based foam per vehicle, and producing soy foam uses less energy and reduces carbon dioxide emissions compared to manufacturing petroleum-based foam. The cost, Ford says, is about the same.

The weight-saving material used on the body of the Lincoln MKT also was used by Hyundai Motor Co. for its QarmaQ concept car, which has been displayed in the United States and this month was shown at Auto Expo 2008 in India. Designers say the material, made by Sabic Innovative Plastics, illustrates that styling doesn't have to suffer at the expense of being more environmentally responsible.

Jeff Gearhart, auto project campaign director for the Ecology Center, a nonprofit activist organization based in Ann Arbor, Mich., said car buyers are paying more attention to the overall environmental impact of vehicles.

Gearhart said it's akin to the green building movement, which is gaining momentum despite including construction changes that might not be easily apparent to those who use the buildings.

Gearhart said green vehicle components can be another selling point for dealers, and don't necessarily need to come at a premium.

"We're not convinced that addressing all these issues necessarily costs more money," he said. "It requires another way of thinking."

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