Hyundai-Kia Rated "Most Climate Friendly Carmaker" by UCS

(3BL Media/Justmeans) A new report just released by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), which ranks the environmental performance of the eight top-selling car companies in the U.S., had some interesting findings.

The report measured both smog-forming and global warming emissions for the model year 2013. First, the good news: every one of the companies evaluated has improved their global warming emissions compared with their 1998 average. This was, no doubt, influenced by the more stringent fuel economy standards. Cars that burn less fuel also give off less pollution. Overall, smog-forming emissions dropped by 87% since 1998. Global warming (GW) emissions, which have become regulated more recently, have dropped by nearly 20 percent. This reverses a two-decade trend, from 1985 to 2005, when gasoline prices fell and Americans fell in love with gas-guzzling sport utility vehicles. A slumping economy, followed by a slow recovery, saw relatively little investment in more-efficient technologies, a trend that has finally reversed. Letting the marketplace sort itself out, as free market cheerleaders have suggested, did not adequately reflect the long-term urgency of the global warming threat. It was only when the new regulations became law that we saw significant changes occur.

Most surprising perhaps, was the fact that for the first time, South Korean automaker Hyundai-Kia took the top spot, moving past long-time champion Honda. Hyundai-Kia made aggressive strides in improving its fuel-efficiency by shifting to smaller engines, adding turbo-charging and offering hybrid-electric versions of its most popular models, the Hyundai Sonata and Kia Optima. Honda continues to lead in several classes, including SUVs and pickup trucks, but has fallen behind in its midsize fleet, dominated by its best-selling Accord sedan.

Also disconcerting, though not totally surprising, is the fact that America’s Big Three were at the bottom in this list; all were rated below the industry average set by foreign-made vehicles. Looking at the list, the companies fall in line by geography, going from Hyundai-Kia, to Japan’s big three (Honda, Toyota, Nissan), to Volkswagen, to the best of Detroit. Domestically, Ford led the pack, followed by GM and Chrysler. These eight top-selling brands represent nearly 90% of all US vehicle sales.The differences between companies were significant with top-ranked Hyundai-Kia producing 26.4% less GW emissions than Chrysler. Ford was third most improved from last year, following Nissan and Hyundai-Kia.

Different companies are currently pursuing different technologies to improve their emissions, ranging from turbocharged gasoline engines, to hybrid electrics, to diesels, to plug-in hybrids and battery electrics. With EPA standards scheduled to tighten in the coming years, we can expect this trend to continue. GM has stated a goal of reducing CO2 emissions by 15% by 2017.

The UCS rankings were developed by taking the average per mile emissions for each

vehicle sold. This way, the results reflected not only what the companies were offering, but also, which configurations actually sold. Upstream emissions resulting from production and distribution were also included in the assessment, along with the emissions generated in the use phase, which generally accounts for as much as 96% of lifecycle vehicle emissions.

Overall vehicle fleet reductions, for all manufacturers over the previous decade, were 18.1%.  Honda, which has generally been at or near the front of the pack, was rated as the least improved compared to 1998. That’s a little misleading, since they were so far ahead of the pack back then. Toyota is also a strong contender, leading in both midsize and large car categories, though their minivans and SUVs reduced their scores. Ford, was best in class in three categories: small cars, sports cars and minivans, falling behind in the midsize class.

In the mid-to-long term, the authors expect to see electrification contributing significant vehicle emission reductions. But continuing modifications and improvement in gasoline powered engines including: turbo-charged downsized engines, higher compression ratios (e.g. Ecoboost), transmissions with more gears , variable valve timing and direct injection, lightweight materials, as well as start-stop technology, which cuts off the engines when stopped, like a hybrid, can all be expected in showrooms in the near future.

As Mike Robinson, GM’s VP of sustainability and global regulatory affairs, has said, climate change, energy scarcity, and congestion have provided valuable disruptions to the industry, leading to a veritable onslaught of innovation. It’s encouraging to see what can be accomplished, when everyone is pulling in the same direction.

[Image credit: Shore Cellular: Flickr Cretive Commons]