Following the (battery) pack

Automotive News reports on how the general media is covering electric cars.

Photo by Automotive News

Fortune magazine is no one's idea of a tree-hugger's handbook. But the April 27 issue features a green cover and a front-page photo of billionaire Warren Buffett in front of a BYD E6, an electric car from China in which Buffett is investing.

The BYD story is one of five articles in the current Fortune about the race to market a commercially successful, environmentally friendly electric car. Fortune was hardly alone among general-interest media outlets in observing this month's Earth Day by offering green-car coverage: so did The New Yorker, The New York Times, and U.S. News & World Report, to cite a few.

As automakers ramp up production of--and publicity about--alternative-technology vehicles, general-interest media are boosting reporting on green cars and trucks. For the most part, automakers and media watchers say that coverage has grown in quality as well as quantity in recent years.

But some critics argue that green-car reporting in consumer media reflects a pack mentality, embracing and then discarding alternative technologies: ethanol, fuel cells, plug-in hybrids, electric cars. Others say that much coverage emphasizes the politics and economics of green vehicles to the exclusion of important technological issues and is prey to corporate hype.

Nancy Gioia, director of sustainable mobility technologies and hybrid-vehicle programs at Ford Motor Co., talks regularly with reporters about green cars. She says mass-media coverage of alternative-technology cars and trucks is more balanced and less gee-whiz than a few years ago. But she adds that she still must work to dispel misunderstandings.

"One of the misconceptions is that the auto industry is the only factor of CO2 on the planet," Gioia told Automotive News. "Then there are concerns that batteries won't last and aren't safe. At the same time, there's a perception that the cost of battery technology is very affordable and that it's going to drop far faster than it will.

"We're bombarded with information from all media sources, and it's getting harder and harder to discern fact from fiction."

Much interest focuses on the Chevrolet Volt, an electric hybrid sedan that General Motors plans to bring to market next year for about $40,000. Volt communications manager David Darovitz says he gets more press inquiries about the car than any other he has handled.

One measure: between March 23 and April 23, the Volt was mentioned in 456 English-language news stories in print, broadcast, and online media, according to Nexis, a news archive. That's up from 204 citations in the same period of 2008 and 167 in the same period of 2007, shortly after GM introduced the Volt as a concept car.

'Silver bullet'

About 18 months ago, in response to an avalanche of media inquiries about the Prius hybrid and Toyota's other advanced-technology vehicles, Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc. created a special communications office to address questions about environmental, safety, and quality matters. Its national manager, John Hanson, says he has "seen a huge increase" in mass-media interest in sustainable mobility.

Hanson says he worries that some reporters, like some consumers and politicians, look for a "silver bullet" vehicle that will resolve all concerns about air quality, fuel prices, regulatory issues, and owner convenience. That's unrealistic, he says.

"There's a lot of hype out there about leapfrogging technologies," Hanson says. "Five years ago, hydrogen fuel cells were seen as just over the horizon. Three years ago, a lot of people thought it was ethanol, and now it's way down the ladder. Maybe plug-in hybrids are looked on that way now--they're old school, and electric vehicles are the answer."

Ron Cogan, the publisher and editor of Green Car Journal, an enthusiast magazine devoted to green vehicles, agrees that mass-media reporting on alternative-fuel vehicles is improving. But he says general-interest reporters still are too credulous of automakers' claims. "A lot of the news never pans out, but the media report it as if it's a done deal," he says.

Cogan says much mainstream coverage of plug-in hybrids ignores tough questions about battery cost. Anointing plug-in technology as the "champion," he argues, deflects public attention from such still-promising alternative fuels as natural gas and ethanol.

"We have abundant supplies of natural gas to free up fuel for transportation, and automakers know how to make natural-gas vehicles," Cogan says. "And a lot of the coverage about E85 flex-fuel vehicles comes down to a controversy about food versus fuel, about creating ethanol from corn, and ignores the huge amount of work that's being done to create cellulosic ethanol from plant waste."

'Clean' electricity?

Other critics point to what they call excesses and distortions in green-car coverage. They cite reporting on the Tesla Roadster, an electric sports car that stickers for $101,200 and has sold about 300 units, according to the company's Web site. Even as a niche vehicle, the Tesla attracted favorable notice in just the past month from ABC News, Fox News, Wired, Forbes, USA Today, and The New York Times.

Another Times article, in the April 19 issue of the newspaper's Sunday magazine, generated criticism as well. It described the efforts of entrepreneur Shai Agassi to establish a network of refueling stations where owners of electric cars could get fresh batteries--noting his plans "to buy only 'clean' electricity, from wind and solar farms."

Skeptics say that technology does not now permit green electricity to be bought separately from other power, a point they say the article glossed over.

Robert Peterson, GM's manager of electric-vehicle technology communications, says reporters are "asking much more intelligent questions about technology." But he says he still must emphasize the difference between alternative-fuel vehicles for mass production and those intended as concept cars or fleet vehicles.

And he says traditional media often seem more interested in "chasing the investment dollar" in green cars than in examining environmental issues.

That's part of the problem, says Sam Abuelsamid, technical editor of AutoblogGreen.com, a green-car site. Most mainstream coverage of current limits to alternative-vehicle technology, he says, is "fairly superficial."

"Unless it's a huge story like the Volt," Abuelsamid says, "you don't find a whole lot of follow-up."

(Source: Automotive News)

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