The auto industry is feeling the heat on climate change. How do you know? Earlier this week, GM’s Bob Lutz opened his door to David Friedman, head of the Clean Vehicle Research program at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS).

The unusual meeting came about after Mr. Lutz, GM’s vice-chairman and product guru, repeated his claims that his company does not have affordable technology to significantly improve vehicle efficiency. The auto industry is not happy about proposals in Congress to increase fuel standards, the recent Supreme Court decision regarding greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles, and the widespread acceptance of the reality of climate change in other business sectors.

“This is a challenge I want to put out to people who think they have a solution, and are so much smarter than we are,” Lutz told the Wall Street Journal. "Let them come and see us. If the technology were readily and easily available, what on earth would our motive be for withholding it?" So Friedman picked up the phone to see if Lutz was really interested in hearing about UCS’s research into off-the-shelf technologies that could increase efficiencies and reduce tailpipe emissions for a few hundred dollars per vehicle.

Lo and behold, Lutz agreed to the meeting. The significance of the meeting was not the subject matter of the discussion. GM certainly knows about direct injection systems, camless systems, low friction lubricants, idle-stop, displacement on demand, better aerodynamics and reduced friction tires. The importance of the meeting is that it occurred at all—opening up more dialogue between GM and environmentalists. Friedman said, “Nothing radically changed. I don’t think I convinced them of anything. And they didn’t convince me.”

Friedman was appreciative that Lutz made the time for him. “I felt the meeting was worthwhile, but if things are going to change, someone will need to lead.” Later in the week, Friedman was in Washington meeting with lawmakers to discuss how readily available conventional technology—rather than so-called breakthrough technologies such as hydrogen, cellulosic ethanol, and next-generation lithium batteries—could help achieve higher efficiency standards more quickly.

“From our perspective, conventional technology is the answer in the next 10 years. One way to resolve our debate is to build a prototype using the best of conventional technologies to show what it could mean in terms of fuel economy,” said Friedman.

GM and other carmakers have unveiled a number of very promising high-efficiency low-emissions concept vehicles—which lack definitive production timetables because key components are not yet available. “It’s the Wimpy thing,” said Friedman. “You know, I will gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today. That would be fine if we weren’t living in a world where climate change is a reality, not to mention all sorts of problems associated with oil dependency. Climate change is happening faster than we thought.”

Friedman said that a follow-up meeting is likely, but could not discuss the details due to confidentiality. He said, “They’re open to taking this conversation to a next step. That’s a good sign. They want to talk.”