Text: Tito F. Hermoso / Photos: | posted April 07, 2010 12:36
Luxury cars and the enivronment today
Every time the world gets an attack of green consciousness, the easiest target is the all pervasive automobile, of which the juiciest target are the automobiles of the rich. Never before had the image conscious glitterati of Hollywood and Santa Monica heeded the Green message in droves, as they decamped from their Cadillac Escalades to the darling of the moment, the Toyota Prius - unintended acceleration or not. Still, those who could not quickly adjust down in status, there's always the discreet Lexus hybrid variants.
Though it would seem that the pro-ecology, pro-environment, pro-earth Green movement would seem to be on a steep climb to universal embrace, "greenness" has been around far longer than many think.
In fact, more than a hundred years ago, the automobile, a toy of the rich, was already seen as a threat to the environment. In those days, the roads were the domain of horses. The rare horseless carriage with its smoke, noise and sputtering backfires was a nuisance, a danger to public health. How ironic considering that in those days, roads were pungent with the methane and litter of the horses' solid emissions. Facing outright bans and draconian regulations, the inventors of the day had to seek other ways for four wheeled self-propelled transport to prosper.
Since a fuel station network had yet to be justified, all means of combustion were tried. Steam, electricity, gas, alcohol, coal, charcoal and even wood. The latter was to prove essential during the war-torn years of the 20th century as shortages of imported fuel made wood the only fuel for the internal combustion engines.
In 1906 a new car claimed to have eliminated what society despised in the motor car. It had little smoke, little noise, carried more people than a horse drawn carriage and was powered by gasoline; the Rolls Royce Silver Ghost. All that refinement needed a lot of capital. A brain child of Henry Royce, exclusive sales of the Silver Ghost went to CS Rolls. Rolls-Royce Motor Cars was born in the tradition of the era, where the company name, combined the name of the sales and finance, Rolls, preceding the name of the manufacturer of the product., Royce. Just like Girard-Perregaux and Patek-Philippe. All were exclusively, luxury goods.
From 1900 to 1920, car makers, which were usually carriage builders, were making cars for the few that, in the view of society at large, could afford such an annoying toy of the rich. Meantime, in the USA, Ford's mass production anti-luxury Model T was fast putting the population on wheels. This spawned a vast expanding network of roads and fueling stations. Cities, that used to be crowded with horses, now with cars, begat suburbs. And its handmaidens: traffic and smog.
Fighting two World Wars focused the world's attention on rationing scarce natural resources. After the war, the material shortages that followed, ushered in more parsimonious automobiles. So while America continued with its wasteful ways owing to their being isolated from the worst effects of the wars, Europe was rebuilding with the aim of conserving natural resources. Thus high taxes on fuel and big cars made small cars a necessity. Little minimalist cars like the 1930's FIAT Topolino would have been embraced by today's Greenies as being conceptually pure to all their beliefs today. Citroen's Traction Avant of the 1920s harnessed advanced technology, light weight materials and aerodynamic engineering to prove that luxury cars can be responsible to natural resources and the environment.
The Suez Canal Crisis triggered the first global Oil Crisis of 1956. This convinced the world that the gas guzzling consumption and wasteful yearly model change of the American market was not the way to the future. Even the jet set, the new rich of the 60's, had to temper their conspicuous consumption for fast cars. The BMC Mini was born and being the wave of the future, both toff and commoner embraced it.
In 1970, the Clean Air Act pushed car makers and oil companies to produce products that was to turn back the environmental damage done by three quarter century's neglect. Along with it came new strictures for accident safety. This time, the laws applied to all kinds of cars, including the cars for the rich.
Recyclability and biodegradable characteristics became the rage in the 80s but this led to some parts degrading even before their time, even in luxury cars. Sustainability and heightened global standards of quality, thanks to Toyota and Volkswagen, led to car makers being responsible for how the parts are produced and discarded so that the World's nonrenewable resources are not wasted.
Internally, the luxury car makers of the world today have used technology to give the luxury car buyer the same exclusivity that the market demands, by being more sparing in the use of rare metals, leathers and woods. For example, instead of whole planks of tropical wood, veneers with alloy backings are used. Other forms of high tech alloys and materials are now being used to adorn the interiors of cars. For the same level of beauty, a lot less goes to waste.
Leather for today's cars are tanned by the slower old fashioned manner, using vegetable extracts in order to avoid using highly corrosive chrome salts. Wool for carpets are from farms monitored for their environmentally friendly procedures. Fabrics are made from recycled PET plastic bottles. Asbestos is no longer used for brake pad linings. Paints minimize the use of volatile and ozone depleting solvents. Some companies take this several steps further. Toyota in Japan even paint their factories in ozone friendly finishes that extract pollution from the air.
Computer technology is used to make big V-12 engines sip fuel like a four cylinder engine. Hybrids and batteries are now being used in luxury cars so that the engine automatically switches off in heavy traffic, leaving the batteries to supply electrical energy to power air con and what not. Even the kinetic energy created when braking or slowing down is harnessed to charge the battery. BMW's energy efficiency and Mercedes's Blue efficiency programs include tires that reduce rolling assistance to improve kilometers per liter fuel consumption. Ferrari and Porsche, purveyors of cost no object, speed no limit cars, use hybrids to keep fuel consumption low when driving in congested cities. Big luxury car bodies are made of lighter alloys are shaped to reduce wind resistance, in aid of better fuel economy. Thinner high strength glass is used to reduce weight.
What started 120 years ago as a rearguard action against waste and a nuisance to the population has now become a universal scientific advocacy. Generations of society are now steeped in Green expectations, the self same generations who design cars today. Gone are the days when the luxury cars of the rich were exempt from the criticism of society at large. Like any new technology, hybrids for instance, will have its slip ups. But going Green is now a universal value. Besides, it also affords a luxury called peace of mind.