Interview with Carl Pope of the Sierra Club

In 2000, after 100 years of refusing to endorse products, the Sierra Club—the world’s largest environmental member organization—established an Excellence in Engineering Award. The award was given to the Honda Insight in 2000, and to the Toyota Prius in 2001. The award, according to Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club, encourages automotive engineers "to spend their weekend tinkering with how to make a car that’s better for the environment, and to go fight the guys with the green eyeshades who never want to do anything new."

After a two-year hiatus, the Sierra Club issued their award to Ford for the Mercury Mariner Hybrid in 2005. Some environmentalists questioned if the Mariner—Ford will only produce 2,000 of the Mariner SUV hybrids each year—deserved the award. In March 2006, HybridCars.com editor Bradley Berman spoke with Carl Pope in his office in San Francisco.

Bradley Berman: How did the Sierra Club choose the Mercury Mariner for its most recent engineering award?

Carl Pope: When Ford came out with the Escape Hybrid, we actually tried to work with them on the launch, to do what we had done for Toyota and Honda. But the second-tier vice presidents at Ford froze us out, because they were irritated that we kept pounding for other things they were doing. So Ford didn’t really want to play ball. And they launched the Escape.

By the time they launched the Mariner a year-and-a-half later, Bill Ford had made it clear that he thought that was kind of foolish. Why not have the support of the Sierra Club? So we launched the Mariner at our Summit in San Francisco.

We actually think it is our job to try to encourage automotive innovation. The public perception is that we are all “stick,” always beating up on the auto industry. Actually, we have a robust history of trying to offer financial carrots to innovate, all of which have been rebuffed.

The auto industry has structural problems, such as legacy costs. We understand that Ford, GM, and DaimlerChrysler are slow to innovate for reasons that are structural as well as cultural. I would argue that there are some cultural things as well, but there are big structure impediments to rapid innovation in the American auto industry. We have repeatedly gone to them and said you need public assistance to overcome your structural impediments. We need a grand bargain. You say you’ll be accountable for innovation, and it will be the job of the government to level the playing field. They say, ‘we’ll get back to you." They never do.

BB: Could it be argued that SUVs are not deserving of an environmental award, even if they are hybrids?

CP: If it’s an Expedition, yes. The Escape and the Mariner are pretty small SUVs. But there’s a point where you have to say, no, we don’t want a hybrid Hummer.

BB: Other environmentalists have criticized Ford, GM, and Toyota for moving in the wrong direction on fuel economy, despite having produced hybrids.

CP: Most of these companies are deserved what they are called. Most of the companies are doing what’s being said. They are not leading. We are very unhappy with Toyota. We’ve told them that. We’ve never said that Toyota is a good guy. They have two [hybrid] models. We are trying to distinguish between praising people when they do good things. And giving them an A for effort, when they do not really deserve an A for effort. Nonetheless, if Johnny got an A on his math test, he still ought to get an A, even if I think he’s a lazy son of a bitch.

That’s pretty much what’s happening with these guys. Not any of them are using their engineering, and sales, and marketing capacity to do the right things. Some of them are doing some individual good things. Toyota and Honda primarily, and now Ford a little bit. I wish GM wouldn’t call their vehicles hybrids. I would like to see incremental progress praised, by not mislabeling it. GM mislabeled it. That’s unfortunate.

BB: And what about the name "environmentalist?" Is that appropriately applied to Bill Ford?

CP: As a human being, perhaps. As a CEO, no. I completely respect his personal beliefs and passions. He has not yet found a way to make his company live up to his values. Could he? I’ve never been head of (Ford). I couldn’t tell you.

BB: Is CAFE your primary focus?

CP: CAFE, or you can do it in other ways. One thing is clear. Consumers are highly price sensitive when they buy a car, and highly price-insensitive when they operate one. So, the place where you have to change gasoline consumption is at the point of purchase. And you either have to tax gas guzzlers or you have to set standards, or do something that in effect creates a shadow price for emitting carbon when you buy a car. It has to be more expensive to buy a car that emits a lot of carbon, or cheaper to buy a car that emits less carbon. Consumers need the right price incentives. Hybrids are moving off the shelf. That’s why they are making so many. So, all the sudden, if cars with old technology, being built on outmoded and written-off assembly lines, were sitting on General Motors showroom, as they were last winter, they’ll make fewer of them.

BB: When you visit the automakers, who do you meet with?

CP: At GM, we meet at the vice president’s level. Chrysler, at the division chief’s level. Ford, we’ve met at both the vice president’s level and at the top. And with the UAW, we’ve met at the top. And what they say is yes, you are right. We will eventually start investing in catching up, but we can’t yet because this year, we have some other problem that comes first. They say yeah, but not yet. Not yet.

BB: Could hybrids change things?

CP: Hybrids begin to create expectations. It’s not the end of the road. It’s the beginning of the road. Down the road, we’re going to be using biofuels, or we’re going to be using hydrogen—I think those are the two likely pathways. If you say that biofuels and hydrogen on a calorie per dollar basis are going to be more expensive than petroleum is today, and if you can move your vehicle with fewer calories per mile, it doesn’t matter. You do all the things with efficiency. Because of the nature of the technology, hybrids are moving us in the direction of taking fewer calories to move the vehicle, and so when people get used to the idea that (when) you buy a Prius, you get something that can be parked as easy as a Corolla, and has the interior of a Camry. Once people get used to that, and are no longer willing to drive a boat.