I felt green to the core. The Vice-President of the United States (US), Al Gore, was coming to South Africa to deliver his An Inconvenient Truth address at Maropeng and I was going to introduce him to a packed audience.
But there was a slight challenge. Gore could only travel from the airport in a small convoy of hybrid vehicles.
A Japanese luxury vehicle manufacturer had recently brought out a range of stunning hybrid SUVs, with enviable fuel consumption and low emissions, and were keen to supply them for the trip to the Cradle of Humankind. But the reply from his office was quite prescriptive; he could only be seen in a hybrid sedan.
This was duly arranged and the Maropeng gathering was supercharged with Gore’s mission to save the planet and how we could make a difference.
The missing link is how did he return to OR Tambo that evening? Well… in a rather large helicopter. In some ways I turned from dark green to light green in a matter of minutes.
Make no bones about it, I’m not saying that we don’t need to preserve fossil fuels and cut down on all forms of pollution. I wouldn’t dare argue with the experts who have exposed holes in the ozone layer and correlate this with dwindling ice caps.
By its very definition, pollution has harmful, and even poisonous, effects and you will find it difficult to get an appointment with an ENT specialist in many of the areas around Africa where industry rules the airwaves.
And when it comes to vehicle emmissions you can’t help but be totally shocked when the US Environmental Protection Agency calculates that the average passenger car spews out
4.7 metric tons of carbon dioxide a year!
So, for many of us, it was a like Tiger Woods moment when the Volkswagen (VW) scandal over rigged emissions tests broke and our minds went back to the ads for the Beetle comeback which showed flower power over two generations.
It is a gaffe that has denuded faith in VW and is likely to have long term affects on their market value, and possibly even the German economy. It is the biggest crisis in their 78-year history.
Media reports say the overall cost of the debacle could amount to $86 billion – that’s $30 billion more than the BP oil spill in 2010!
VW say that the defeat devices were fitted to around 11 million vehicles worldwide. But it seems not every owner will have to rush to get their cars refitted or reprogrammed. Volkswagen Group South Africa says that no action is required on the part of their customers or dealers.
Here is where things get complicated. According to VW Brand PR Manager Andile Dlamini, the irregularities reported overseas relate to a nitrogen oxide emmission standard known as Euro 5. In South Africa, the compliance standard is EU2.
So the VW and Audi diesel engines in question comply with South Africa’s regulations in relation to nitrogen oxide and, according to Dlamini, the software does not negatively affect the carbon dioxide values – which leaves me feeling that I should have concentrated harder in science class.
So any recall of cars around Africa will depend on that country’s specific emission standards.
Surprisingly, in terms of numbers, this won’t rate among the biggest recalls in history.
The automotive world is still reeling from the defective Takata airbags which can shoot out sharp metal shrapnel when deployed. Around 35 million vehicles may be affected in the US and an additional seven million have been recalled worldwide.
Nearly two dozen brands have been affected in this rather frightening scenario which has left some dealers disabling the airbags and affixing ‘Do Not Sit Here’ stickers to the dashboards as a temporary measure!
If we focus on a single manufacturer, then the recall record goes to Ford in the late seventies. It involved a failed safety catch which allowed all Ford automatics to slip from Park to Reverse with no warning. The safety defect was blamed for 6,000 accidents and 98 deaths. Repairs to 20 million vehicles and a host of law suits reportedly cost Ford $1.79 billion. A fortune back in the day!
It was a testing start for Mary Barra when she took the helm of the General Motors Company (GM) in the midst of a massive recall at the beginning of last year. Under the spotlight of becoming the first woman to head a major automobile manufacturer, she faced revelations about faulty ignition switches and pressure from investors to return more cash to investors.
Listed by FORBES as one of the Top 10 most powerful women in the world, Barra inherited the ‘new’ GM which was founded in 2009 after the trials and tribulations of bankruptcy and a Chapter 11 reorganization. And the leaner operation has been declaring profits since 2010 despite the costly recall and a dip in share prices.
GM sold over 180,000 vehicles in their Africa markets last year – which represents a 10% market share. The President and Managing Director of GM Sub-Saharan Africa, Ian Nicholls, says he is excited about the growth potential of the business.
“We are finalizing the details of our agreement with Isuzu to build higher volumes of vehicles in South Africa. The Isuzu range has a reputation for reliability and capability, and is engineered for local conditions,” says Nicholls.
The Chevrolet portfolio extends from that tiny Spark, through the Captiva, to the daunting Trailblazer. The updated Trailblazer is handily placed to take a slice out of the Fortuner market with an attractive and comfortable cabin, in grey and black trim, and the model I tested with the 2.8-liter Duramax turbodiesel engine has grunt to spare with a fairly stable fuel gauge – well a claimed 8.5l/100km.
Strangely it’s the infotainment system of the beast that impresses me the most. The Chevrolet MyLink setup, with rearview camera included, is the essence of simplicity and makes you wonder why so many German marques make choosing a radio station a life study.
But it’s Opel that is really turning heads and order books.
“The Opel brand is on the rise with sales volumes up more than 76 percent year to date, on the back of a product onslaught,” says Nicholls.
For me one of the surprise packages of the year is the tiny Opel Adam, available in funky guises of Jam and Glam, with a one-liter turbo engine that loves to canter. It’s even more appealing than a Fiat 500 and has more standard features than any luxury car I have tested.
Little wonder it is bagging international awards.
But despite these positive outlooks, GM and virtually all car manufacturers, many surviving as hybrids born of takeovers, must be nervous about further major recalls that could spell financial disaster.
And here’s what will make them even more wary. The British government is to start its own enquiry into car emissions, running new tests on engines from across the industry and comparing the results with on-the-road emissions.
These independent tests could even challenge the claimed fuel consumption figures which, in many cases, seem to have been calculated on some of the steep downhills of the Tour de France.
Accountability is going to be the name of the game.