New Ads: Clean Cars or a Trip to the Greenwash?

by Bill Chameides | September 30th, 2011
posted by Erica Rowell (Editor)

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Do two new cars really deliver on their ads’ claims? If your head’s all tangled up on what to believe we look at some facts. (Screenshot from Nissan Leaf ad.)

Sure, advertising could be considered an art of grand hyperbole. But are new car ads the latest brushstrokes on this fanciful canvas or truthful commentary on how far down the road car companies have come using high tech to lower pollution?

New Diesel: From a Million Dead-End Streets to the Fast Lane

Maybe, like me, you were in the other room during a commercial break from that favorite show there wasn’t room for on the DVR, when a familiar tune emanating from the new flat panel flashed you back to the good old days of rock and roll. And sure enough, when you walked back to the TV room, there it was underneath shots of helpless, imprisoned people trapped in a world of sad boredom and black-belching cars.

But before you knew it, the familiar, upbeat refrain of that famous rock song kicked in, propelling a major narrative shift — swift cars zipping through the fast lane overtaking the lugubrious slow motion, blue skies clearing away the ubiquitous dark exhaust clouds, and an exciting new alternative sweeping away the saddening bore of yesterday’s disgusting pollution: today’s advanced diesel.

The upshot of the ad? Drive one of these babies, and your heart will leap out of the basement, your all-time low weekend will burst into an all-time high … in short, your life will be more than just hunky-dory — it’ll be fast-paced, grand and clean. Course, left out of the spot is the price tag — the car will also cost you a good deal more legal tender than many of us are accustomed to plunking down for a set of wheels. But all in all, ch-ch-changes, indeed.

Can Diesel Really Be Fast or Clean?

A colleague mentioned to me the other day that the first time she saw this ad she thought it must be for an electric car, it’s so obviously emissions-bashing. In fact it’s for BMW’s advanced diesel 335d.

Safe to say there’s a good deal of winking visual hyperbole at play. But what about any truth? Could this BMW diesel be anywhere near as clean as is suggested here? After all, diesel is not traditionally thought of as a winner in the clean exhaust sweepstakes, nor is it known for speeds.

Obviously, the ad is an effort to shake those presumably wrong conceptions about diesel-fueled cars. We’ll forgo the performance issue, merely noting that the longer pistons in diesel engines translate into more torque and thus better acceleration than gasoline-powered cars. But for true-blue treehuggers, who cares about 0-60 in under a nanosecond or whatever. What about the emissions?

On the pollution side of things, modern diesels are a long way from your granddaddy’s black smoke-belching heap. When coupled with today’s ultra-low sulfur diesel fuel (which allows the catalytic converters to operate), modern diesel cars operate with very low emissions of both particulates and nitrogen oxides — if they are operating properly you won’t see any black smoke spewing out of their exhaust pipes and they will easily get you through your annual pilgrimage to the local motor vehicles inspection site. (More on ultra-low sulfur diesel.)

OK, those are your standard pollutants, what about carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions? Gallon-to-gallon, diesel doesn’t look so good: CO2 emissions from a gallon of diesel are estimated at 22.2 pounds compared to 19.4 pounds for a gallon of gas. But diesel engines have better fuel economy, so much so that modern diesels can actually generate less CO2 per mile driven. How much less? Savings estimates vary, but may be on the order of 27 percent lower. And, according to the Department of Energy, “advanced diesel vehicles fueled by ultra-low sulfur diesel are among the most fuel-efficient vehicles available today.”

All that seems to represents real ch-ch-change. So yeah, despite hyperbolic imagery, it looks like there’s less greenwashing here than one might expect.

Turning Over a New Leaf and Churning Over a Funny Notion

Nissan’s ad for its all-electric Leaf asks us to imagine a world where all our electrically powered stuff is powered by gasoline instead. It’s funny, funny strange: waking up to an alarm clock spewing out exhaust, sitting in the dentist chair as the dentist starts up his drill a la a lawn mower, ready to put that stinky, polluting piece of equipment up your mouth.

Gasoline-powered engines — how totally retro. And then, enter Nissan’s Leaf — no gasoline, just plug it in, and then drive.

No getting around it, this commercial traffics in hyperbole too.

But what about its messaging? Is there truth to it?

While electric vehicles emit no carbon dioxide emissions while they run, of course they still need to be fueled, and, depending on where you are in the United States, that “fuel” could be more or less polluting. In regions like California that get a good deal of their electricity from renewable sources, emissions reductions are on the larger side. But nationally, 45 percent of our electricity is coal-fired power. (Plug in your zip code on this page to check the carbon content of your electricity sources.)

Even so, thanks in large part to the greater efficiency of electricity over internal combustion engines, on average electric cars are thought to generate 30 percent less CO2 emissions than gasoline-powered cars. In fact, a number of studies suggest an electric car can lead on average to “35 to 60% less carbon dioxide pollution from electricity than the CO2 pollution from the oil of a conventional car with an internal combustion engine.” (See more here [pdf].)

So this ad also looks to truck out some truth, too.

So there you have it. And I gotta go — there’s something wrong, I think I need to get my laptop to the gas station for a refueling and then check the ignition.

Further Reading


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