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Clint Wilder Headshot

Is the Hybrid Escalade an Oxymoron?

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Some years ago, I'm not sure when, the prize vehicles awarded to heroes of major sports events made the unfortunate transition from snazzy convertible sports cars to the biggest, hulkiest, meanest SOBs - I mean SUVs - on the block. So it was no surprise when New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning, after engineering one of the greatest upset wins in Super Bowl history 10 days ago (with a tremendous assist from his team's defense, I must add), was handed the MVP trophy and the keys to a brand-new black 2009 Cadillac Escalade.

But this is 2008, and there's a twist. It's a hybrid Escalade. And that's now officially a trend. The Super Bowl telecast also included an ad for the new GMC Yukon hybrid, and at Major League Baseball's All-Star Game last summer, I was there in person at San Francisco's AT&T Park to see game MVP Ichiro Suzuki receive a hybrid Chevy Tahoe SUV. (Full disclosure: in addition to clean energy and sustainability, I'm also passionate about sports in general and baseball in particular).

At that time, my book The Clean Tech Revolution (co-authored with Ron Pernick) had just been published, and at a bookstore appearance the next day I was happy to extol Ichiro's MVP award as a great example of clean tech having moved firmly into the consumer and cultural mainstream. I also noted that Fox Sports used biodiesel to power its satellite trucks and broadcast equipment at the game, and the related All-Star Fanfest displayed the Chevy Volt, General Motors' concept car that can be configured as an all-electric, plug-in hybrid, hydrogen fuel cell, or flex-fuel vehicle.

But now, I'm not so sure that biggest-of-the-fleet SUV hybrids are such a good thing. Yes, it's good to see the mainstreaming of hybrid technology, but are hybrid Escalades, Tahoes, and Yukons really just the "lipstick on a pig" philosophy at work - dressing up a bad thing to look a little better, ecologically speaking? GM calls it (I'm not making this up) "intelligent indulgence." GM promises that the hybrid version will improve the Escalade's city gas mileage by up to 50 percent - from its current 12 mpg all the way to 18. Yippee.

The hybrid Escalade reminds me of the 15,000 square foot McMansion with solar panels, or the coal-fired power plant with incrementally reduced CO2 emissions. Sure, it's better than its more harmful, greenhouse gas-producing predecessor, but it also carries the implication that incremental improvements in the way we've always done things - or at least the way we've done things since the 1980s when SUVs and McMansions proliferated - will get us where we need to be on carbon reduction. They won't.

Want to hazard a guess as to the average increase in American home size since the early 1980s? It's 30 percent in square footage, and a whopping 50 percent in cubic footage - the actual amount of space that needs to be heated or cooled (can you say Atrium Living Room?). I learned that useful factoid not from a granola-crunching non-profit but from Jeff Sterba, CEO of PNM Resources, the largest utility in New Mexico, who spoke at last week's Clean-Tech Investor Summit conference in Palm Springs, California (I'll be blogging about the conference next week).

I'm not suggesting that we all need to ride bicycles and live in tiny hovels with uncomfortable temperatures. I do live in the modern world, and like to think of myself as a realist. Large families need roomy vehicles, yes. But they don't have to be the largest non-commercial vehicles on the road, plugging along at 12 miles to the gallon in city driving, if that. (And what percentage of all Cadillac Escalade driving is spent carting big families around? Very little, I'd guess).

I really do believe that technology, with adequate levels of investment and policy support, is the best hope to solve the global climate and resource crisis -- not expecting millions of people to undergo a radical lifestyle change. But I'd prefer to see technology deliver true innovation and game-changing results, like the Toyota Prius or the all-electric Tesla Roadster or possibly (to be fair to GM) the Chevy Volt - not just a 6-mpg improvement for Eli Manning's trophy car. We can do a lot better than that - and pretty soon, we're going to need to.