s if he is looking into the crystal ball of the auto world, John Viera must see as far as 50 years into the future to answer some pertinent questions: What size will cars be? Should they run on gasoline, electricity, biofuels or something else? Will they be environmentally friendly?
Driven by federal regulations, consumer demand, environmental concerns and the competition, American automakers are pushing harder to offer drivers more choices in hybrid, electric and more fuel efficient "green vehicles." And Viera, Ford Motor Co.'s global director of sustainability, is among African Americans behind the scenes bringing those goals to fruition.
While Viera implements Ford's global strategy, Roland Holloman, a mechanical engineer at Chrysler, spends weeks at a time ensuring that software components work seamlessly on soon-to-be-released, plug-in hybrid vehicles in the nation's coldest and hottest climates. He's tested cars in Yuma, Ariz., where temperatures rise well past 100 degrees. Just last month, he was running tests in frigid International Falls, Minn., where the temperature was 4 below zero.
And before they hit the showroom floor, Michael Burton, director of General Motors interior design of electrified vehicles, has to make sure they look good. For Burton, who designed the Acadia Denali and the Buick Enclave, beauty and style come first in the design process. But he also is responsible for blending efficiency and environmental consciousness into the vehicles.
"The component of being electrified and being more efficient are part of consumer demand and becoming more environmentally friendly," he says. "That's challenging. It's not the excuse, but the objective. It gives you the license and the freedom to be more adventurous. "
As African Americans help envision and produce alternative powertrain vehicles, this question remains: Will African Americans buy in? George Augustaitis, senior automotive analyst for Mintel, a Chicago-based global market research company, says only time will tell.
In a report released in November, the firm reported only 12.5 percent of African Americans own a hybrid or electric vehicle. But they ranked highest among respondents who said they were "most interested" in buying a hybrid or electric vehicle for their next purchase, and compared to other groups surveyed, they were most willing to spend an extra $3,000 to $5,000 to own a green vehicle. Another 31 percent said they were willing to spend at least an additional $1,000 to $3,000 on an alternative vehicle, and 26 percent said they were unsure about their next purchase.
That means African Americans are ripe consumers for the picking. However, Augustaitis points out that U.S. auto manufacturers may want to consider whether or not they're doing enough to market these vehicles to African-American consumers.
The thought first hit Augustaitis as he listened to the nationally syndicated Steve Harvey Morning Show on the radio one recent morning while in Detroit. He heard Harvey telling poignant accounts of his days working on the line at Ford, and talking about putting lawn chairs in the back of his F-150 pick-up truck.
"Steve Harvey talks about the Focus, the Fusion and the Escape, but when they had people on the show from Ford, they rarely talked about the hybrids," he says. "This year's sponsor for the BET Awards was the Ford Focus. Kevin Hart does the commercial for the Ford Explorer. It's a new vehicle, but it's not a hybrid. Here, you have a group that is willing to spend more to own a hybrid or electric vehicle, would be proud to own one, and no one is speaking to them."
Additionally, Augustaitis points out that FordUrban.com, Ford's website targeting African-American consumers, features the 2012 Focus. "It's not the Fusion hybrid," he says. "I know they are going to market the vehicle, but I don't feel like there's a big push on it."
Meanwhile, Mintel research reported that 26 percent of Black respondents are very concerned about carbon emissions, and 30 percent agree that new electric engines in cars such as the Chevy Volt are amazing feats of engineering.
Viera is aware of Black interest in green cars. While he says the favorite part of his job is working with engineers, he's also giving more thought to materials used to make cars. More materials are recycled and renewable than ever before.
For instance, in each new Ford Escape, the carpet is made from 33 recycled water bottles. The blue speckles in the multi-colored carpet padding in Ford vehicles are scraps from denim manufacturers-enough to make three pairs of jeans. And wheat straw from Canada is used to strengthen plastic made from soy oil in the Ford Flex. Foam for seat padding also is made from soy oil instead of petroleum, which can take as long as 2,000 years to decompose.
"As African Americans, we are very family oriented and we always like to think about, from an environmental standpoint, how to produce a vehicle today that doesn't compromise the ability of future generations to enjoy the earth," Viera says. "I know what we're producing here is not going to be compromising what my children and grandchildren will be interested in."
That's also important to Holloman.
"I believe in global warming and peak oil," he says. "It's always smart as an engineer to never use more resources than you have. That's important to us as an organization and individually."
Currently, the Baltimore native's focus is on a new plug-in minivan. He also has worked on a plug-in pick-up truck that is being tested with 140 vehicles on the road equipped with laptops to ensure they are properly blending the energy from the gasoline. When drivers get behind the wheel of alternative powertrain vehicles, they shouldn't notice anything different than in their conventional cars, trucks and SUVs.
That's why he puts them through their paces, taking them to hilly terrain in San Francisco, driving them in heavy city traffic and in the most extreme temperatures.
"We want people to realize that they can get fuel economy and technology and all the things they think they can get from foreign manufacturers, from Chrysler," Holloman says. "We have a handle on alternative powertrains and they don't have to look any further than Detroit-based companies."
KIMBERLY HAYES TAYLOR IS A DETROIT-BASED AUTHOR AND INDEPENDENT JOURNALIST.