Ford And GM Scientists Knew Cars Caused Climate Change 50 Years Ago: Report

When GM was working on climate change research, the Corvette looked like this.
When GM was working on climate change research, the Corvette looked like this.
Photo: GM via OldCarBrochures

Just as the oil industry has known about climate change for decades and campaigned against efforts to fight it, a new report details how Ford and GM scientists briefed their companies about how car emissions were melting the ice caps and causing climate change. All that and more in The Morning Shift for October 27, 2020.


1st Gear: GM Execs Encouraged Research Thinking Cars Caused Global Cooling

Today it’s common knowledge that big corporations tend to lie and cheat their way to profit at the expensive of consumer safety and environmental health. We’ve known how Exxon Mobile knew about climate change since the 1970s and worked to stifle legislation against it, for instance.

A new report from E&E News details how researchers at GM and Ford worked on studying how cars cause climate change as early as the mid 1960s. It’s already common knowledge how car companies resist efforts to stop governments from mandating they make cleaner cars. So why the discrepancy? Why would a company like GM encourage research into climate change in the first place?

As the E&E News investigation explains, GM promoted this research thinking that it’d prove how cars were helping the environment, not hurting it:

In 1965, a young physicist became one of the first women to join General Motors Research Laboratories in Warren, Mich. Her name was Ruth Annette Gabriel Reck, and she would set the company on a course toward greater scientific understanding of how the greenhouse effect was raising temperatures on Earth.

A Midwesterner, Reck had in 1954 become the youngest person to graduate from Minnesota State University, Mankato, at just 18 years old. After earning a doctorate in physical chemistry from the University of Minnesota, she joined GM with plans to continue studying that subject.

But in her first week on the job, Reck met with Marvin Leonard “Murph” Goldberger, a visiting physicist from Princeton University who later would become president of the California Institute of Technology. Goldberger convinced her to study climate change instead.

“He said, ‘You will never regret it. It really is an important topic,’” Reck recalled in one of several phone interviews with E&E News.

With the approval of her supervisors, Reck began studying global warming in the late ‘60s. The first topic she explored was aerosols, or tiny particles that can come from automobiles, power plants and factories.

GM executives were optimistic about the research. They believed it would show aerosols had a significant cooling effect on the atmosphere, canceling out the warming effect of carbon dioxide.

The executives thought aerosols “might actually negate the effects of the CO2 coming off. And so they were positively thinking that maybe the use of fossil fuels by the automobile could be neutral,” Reck said.

The findings showed otherwise.

Reck was allowed to publish her findings in 1975 and present her findings to executives, including none other than Roger “Roger and Me” Smith, who would go on to run GM (into the ground) as CEO in the 80s. Per E&E:

Reck later presented her findings to Roger Bonham Smith, who became chairman and CEO of GM in 1981, and Robert “Bob” Stempel, who succeeded Smith in 1990.

“We would sit down and they would look at the papers, and I would explain to them what they were looking at,” she said, adding, “They were aware of things that were going on.”

Ford’s history is just as damning. The company hired on a scientist who had researched climate change in the mid-1950s and continued to work on the subject within the company for years. Ford didn’t just take no action on climate change; as with GM it worked against cleaner car regulations.

The report is worth a read in full and brings to mind the opening discussions of David Halberstam’s wonderful book on Ford’s mismanagement during this time, The Reckoning. Halberstam starts the book recounting how an oil industry analyst visited each of the Big Three in mid-1973 on the eve of the OPEC crisis to warn these companies that energy prices would soon rise and they’d need to invest in fuel-efficient cars. Chrysler and Ford barely listened to his reports, GM refused to even have a meeting. We know how that went.


2nd Gear: China Expects 20 Percent Of New Car Sales To Be EVs By 2025

This is not a government mandate; it is an expectation, as Automotive News China reports:

Sales of new energy vehicles (NEV) in China, the world’s biggest auto market, will jump to 20 percent of overall new car sales by 2025 from just 5 percent now, and to 50 percent by 2035, the China Society of Automotive Engineers (China-SAE) said.

The association also predicts 95 percent of NEV sales in 2035 will be full—electric vehicles, while hybrid vehicles will make up the rest, China-SAE president Li Jun, told its annual conference in Shanghai on Tuesday.

Li’s presentation slide showed that China-SAE had slightly lowered its outlook for NEVs for 2025 to 20 percent, from a 25 percent goal mentioned in a policy proposal published by China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology last year.

The influential industry body, whose members include senior auto executives and academics, is involved in setting the country’s mid- to long-term electric vehicle policies. The technology roadmap is not government policy, but is a key reference for policy makers, companies and investors.


It goes to show that governments can influence significant change in their automotive industries!

3rd Gear: VW: We Don’t Need Stimulus

Volkswagen boss Herbert Diess was happy to say that Europe’s support for electric vehicles was good, but the industry as a whole didn’t need any more stimulus, as the Financial Times reports:

Volkswagen chief executive Herbert Diess has abandoned attempts to secure more stimulus for the auto industry after the world’s largest carmaker enjoyed a stronger-than-expected recovery in sales across western Europe and China.

“If we don’t face a second lockdown or further economic slump, I would argue that there’s no need for another purchasing incentive,” Mr Diess, who lobbied loudly for subsidies in Germany at the start of the pandemic, told the Financial Times.


“There were a lot of incentives out there for electric cars and plug-in hybrids in Germany and all over Europe, and it worked,” Mr Diess conceded of the stimulus governments introduced early in the pandemic.

The verdict from Mr Diess came after Ola Kallenius, the chief executive of rival Daimler, also dismissed the need for further stimulus even as much of Europe grapples with a new rise in coronavirus cases. 


“If we don’t face a second lockdown or further economic slump” seems like a big “if” to me, personally.

4th Gear: Jaguar Land Rover Announces Profit

Speaking of a European carmaker making money, JLR stunned me personally by announcing a profit. Seems like big news for the company that’s making the Jaguar XE. Automotive News Europe reports:

Jaguar Land Rover made a pretax profit during the latest quarter as its dealerships resumed business after most were closed during the coronavirus outbreak.

The company posted a profit of 65 million pounds ($85 million) before tax for the quarter ended Sept. 30 on revenue of 4.4 billion pounds, JLR said in a statement on Tuesday.

The profit was up significantly from a loss of 413 million pounds in the previous quarter but lower than the pre-COVID-19 profit of 156 million pounds in the same quarter a year ago, the automaker said.


Parent company Tata Motors reported a consolidated net loss of 3.14 billion rupees ($42.5 million) for the quarter, compared with a loss of 2.17 billion rupees a year earlier. The company suffered as India’s economy remained shut for months following the coronavirus outbreak.

JLR accounts for most of Tata Motors’ revenue.

5th Gear: Prosecutors Drop Investigation Against EX-VW Boss In Light Of Other Case Against Him

I first saw news reports that prosecutors in Stuttgart were dropping an investigation against the former VW superboss and double-breasted suit-aficionado Martin Winterkorn and thought that Dieselgate proceedings might be starting to slow down.


I didn’t realize it was because the Stuttgart prosecutors felt petty in light of the significantly more damning criminal case Winterkorn is dealing with elsewhere in Germany, as Reuters reports:

Prosecutors in Stuttgart have dropped a market manipulation investigation into former Volkswagen Group CEO Martin Winterkorn, deferring to a criminal case against him in the city of Brunswick.

Prosecutors in Stuttgart had looked at whether Winterkorn had manipulated markets by delaying the disclosure of VW’s emissions scandal in 2015. VW in September that year admitted using engine control software to cheat U.S. diesel emission tests, battering its share price.


A spokeswoman for the Stuttgart prosecutors said the investigation was dropped because any penalty imposed by the court there would have little significance compared to what could result from the Brunswick proceedings.


Reverse: My Daily Driver


Neutral: What Are You Doing To Stay Sane Today?

I am going to organize my spare bike parts. This will help me gain a feeling of control.

Raphael Orlove is features editor for Jalopnik.



It goes to show that governments can influence significant change in their automotive industries!

Of course they can in totalitarian states. Is that really the example we want to follow?