By Craig Trudell, Automotive News
Ann Arbor, Michigan -- Automakers' efforts to reduce vehicle tailpipe emissions get most of the public's attention. But changes also are being made to cut the use of toxic chemicals in interiors, according to a study released today by the Ecology Center, a non-profit environmental group in Ann Arbor.
This second study ranks more than 450 vehicles from the 2006-09 model years for interior air quality. About half of the vehicles tested are from the 2008 and 2009 model years.
Rankings are determined by the presence of toxic chemicals such as bromine, chlorine, lead and heavy metals in more than a dozen interior components, including steering wheels, instrument panels, armrests and seats.
Each vehicle is given an overall vehicle rating from 0 to 5, indicating the relative level of health and environmental concern associated with the materials in the vehicle -- with 0 being the least concern.
Consumers are showing more interest in their cars' impact on their health and the environment, said Jeff Gearhart, director of the Ecology Center's Clean Car Campaign.
"Companies are starting to take this seriously," Gearhart told Automotive News in a telephone interview. "There is an interest out there, and it can factor into a purchase decision." While automakers must overcome some hurdles to improve their ratings, Gearhart said, the study shows manufacturers have pulled it off with some of the cheapest vehicles.
"There's a vehicle on the market at every price point, whether it's a $13 000 Smart or (Chevrolet) Cobalt, all the way up to a Lexus or more top-of-the-line vehicles," he said. "There are examples in every market segment where companies are doing it. There are challenges, but the fact that companies can develop products that test well shows that this can be done. Consumers don't have to buy a $60 000 car to buy a healthy vehicle."
The centre has discussed the study and ways to improve ratings with General Motors and Ford Motor Co., Gearhart said. Automakers can replace chemicals that have toxic flame retardants or phase out components that require toxic chemicals.
GM score rose 27%
GM's talks with the centre paid off, as the company leapfrogged Ford and Chrysler llc in the ratings. GM improved its overall score 27 percent compared with its fleet of vehicles in last year's study. The jump put GM neck and neck with top-rated vehicles made by Honda, Volvo, Toyota and Smart.
"We think that's big because of the size of GM and the impact it can have on the industry and with its suppliers," Gearhart said. "OEMs need to send a clear message and have strong, comprehensive chemical policies for their suppliers to adhere to."
The poorest-performing automakers in the Ecology Center's study were BMW and Volkswagen.
The study was released to the public 22 July at www.HealthyCar.org. This year the centre included fuel economy figures with ratings so consumers can search for vehicles that fare best in both measures.
Said Gearhart: "You can't understate importance of overall emissions. Manufacturers can do both -- they can make their vehicles greener on the inside and the outside."