TRAVERSE CITY, MICH. — Top officials at three of the world's largest car companies said that recycling and fuel efficiency will play an increasingly prominent role in the design of new North American vehicles.
Those comments, made at an Aug. 6 event attended by key automotive industry executives, could pave the way for the heightened use of plastics as a recyclable, lightweight material of choice.
Recycling and fuel savings have traditionally taken a back seat to cost factors in the selection of materials in North America, according to many research studies and interviews with automakers. The same is not true in Western Europe, where environmental concerns and high fuel prices provide a differing perspective.
However, environmental pressures might be catching up with North American automakers, judging from the comments made at the University of Michigan Management Briefing Seminars in Traverse City. Speakers from Ford Motor Co. in Dearborn, Mich.; Chrysler Corp. in Auburn Hills, Mich.; and Honda Manufacturing of America Inc. in Marysville, Ohio, all trumpeted the need for greater societal responsibility.
What ignited the speeches was the specter of a binding international treaty on global warming that negotiators from major nations could sign at a December meeting in Kyoto, Japan. Ford and Chrysler officials vehemently opposed the treaty but said the industry will step up its environmental stewardship on its own.
That theme was first suggested in a speech delivered by Ford Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Alex Trotman.
``Our money is where our mouth is,'' Trotman said. ``Our German manufacturing sites recycle 93 percent of waste materials. [In North America], we're recycling pop bottles, old tires, telephones and carpets into parts for our new vehicles.''
Later, during a panel discussion, Trotman added that Ford was committed to at least 85 percent recyclability for all products.
Thomas Gale, Chrysler's executive vice president for product development, did not echo that level of commitment but said the carmaker must find ways to efficiently recycle materials, especially plastics.
``Many of our plastic-based products can and should be recycled,'' Gale said. ``Right now, we're making progress to play a responsible role by looking at [recycling] technology and infrastructure. We want to first learn about the effects of technology before we develop that recycling effort.''
Also on the minds of carmakers was the need for vehicles to reduce emissions and save fuel. Honda of America President Takeo Fukui was the most adamant on the subject, citing Honda's corporate philosophy of ``respect for the individual in society.''
Honda was especially proud of its work to build the first ultra-low emission vehicles, called ULEV's, that meet California's stringent fuel-efficiency regulations that go into effect in three years. Fukui said the company's Marysville plant also had organized a team to consider alternative materials to make lighter-weight vehicles.
Fukui urged automakers to take the environmental challenge and commit to developing technology to create recyclable, energy-efficient and emissions-friendly vehicles.
``For the future of our company, we must change, and for the future of our industry, we must change. The purest expression we can make to our customers is for the preservation of our planet,'' he said.
Fukui, who said that Asia has horrendous air-pollution problems, was at odds with Gale and Trotman over global-warming legislation. The American automakers suggested that an international treaty could restrict driving and vehicle usage and boost fuel-economy standards to unreasonable levels.
``Such a treaty could lead to higher energy costs for consumers and businesses, making automobiles and a variety of other products less affordable,'' Trotman said.
However, the executives formed a consensus on the need for lightweight vehicles. Trotman and Gale both extolled the virtues of fuel-efficient vehicles being developed with government support in a program titled The Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles, or PNGV. Fukui also spoke of developing the cleanest-burning cars on the market.
Many of the new, mega-fuel-efficient vehicles under development use aluminum or magnesium bodies. Ford, which unveiled its PNGV vehicle this spring, touted aluminum body panels and structural components to achieve light weight.
That is a problem being addressed by the plastics industry, said Al Maten, director of durables for the American Plastics Council in Washington. Maten, based in Farmington Hills, Mich., said APC is helping launch a plastics-industry consortium to develop and market lightweight materials to carmakers.
APC has contacted many of the larger plastics companies to provide financial support to the consortium. The group, which hopes to begin work early next year, would offer a forum for companies to share technologies and collaborate on developing alternative plastics materials that conserve fuel, Maten said.
``I might get in trouble for saying this, but it's an effort that's long overdue for our industry,'' Maten said. ``Weight savings is becoming much more critical to the auto industry. Environmental issues in general are getting a lot of attention.''
And they don't seem to be going away any time soon, if the car-company executives can be believed. Trotman said it this way: ``The recycling of materials and the reduction of waste is very high on our radar screen.''