Electric Cars Are NOT A Government Program

By Bill Moore

Posted: 11 Oct 2011

One of the oft-heard slams on electric cars and the policy makers who support them, was recently echoed by Russ Harding at Mackinac Center for Public Policy. In his oped entitled, Electric Cars Nonstarters with Consumers, he states in the opening paragraph…

"The political class in Washington has decided that electric vehicles are the future of automobiles in this country. Manufacturers are more than happy to comply, provided that the federal government lavishes taxpayer-funded subsidies on them in the form of grants to build the new vehicles and generous tax credits for purchase of the electronic wonders."

Harding isn't the only pundit or politician to excrete this bullshit, especially if they make their living pandering to the interests of their wealthy patrons. The underlying objective is, of course, to smear the Obama Administration for its efforts to help the American auto industry establish a leadership position on the technology of the 21st century, instead of relinquishing yet another critical sector responsible for one-in-ten jobs in America to Asian and European companies.

After reading his statement, I felt compelled to point out in the comments section of his article that efforts by U.S. carmakers to bring electric cars to market were underway long before the current White House Administration took office. For me personally this occurred in the Spring of 2006 when GM invited me to join them on a trip to Iceland. It was while we were entering a meeting room for lunch at the Nordic Hotel in Reykjavik our first day there that a GM executive turned to me and said, "Bill, the electric car isn't dead at GM." The company was still smarting from the blowback of Chris Paine's "Who Killed the Electric Car?" documentary premiered the year before. This executive wanted me to understand that something important was in the works, and sure enough, at the 2007 Detroit auto show, they rolled out the Chevrolet Volt concept car to much media acclaim. The rest, of course, is history.

The following year, then-GM Chairman Rick Wagoner gave his memorable opening keynote to the media at the car show in which he elaborated why the company was beginning to devote so much of its resources to the development of a spectrum of electric-drive technologies from mild-hybrids to fuel cells. Over at Ford, the company was engineering its next generation hybrid drive and collaborating with Magna on an electric version of the Focus.

Barack Obama would not be sworn in as President until a year later.

Apparently, Mr. Harding has forgotten the axion that politicians only lead where people already have decided to go. Detroit decided to invest in electric cars long before any government subsidies or tax breaks came their way.

Russ Harding also seems to have forgotten that any new, paradigm changing technologies require vast sums of money, which up until the global economy nearly melted down into a fully-blown replay of the 'Great Depression' they were absorbing on their own. But having the market for your product crash from 17 million vehicles to 10 million in mere months nearly broke Ford and did break GM and Chrysler.

The lender of last resort with funds (aka Treasury notes) available to keep them and their programs afloat was the Federal government. Part of the price of that bailout was to require GM, especially, to drastically streamline their operations, their management structure, their employee benefit programs, and their product lineup, including working on more fuel efficient vehicles. One of the more important strategies for achieving that objective was the greater electrification of the automobile drivetrain, which could, depending on its architecture and size of the battery pack, improve fuel efficiency from 20% to 50% and higher, even eliminating the very need for gasoline entirely.

Because of those investments by both carmakers, the Federal government and the state of Michigan, for example, consumers can now buy two models of the 2012 Buick -- the Regal and LaCrosse -- with eAssist, GM's mild-hybrid auto stop-start system at no additional cost, and see an estimated 20% improvement in fuel economy.

Harding raises the issue of the Deloitte's "Unplugged: Electric Vehicle Realities Versus Consumer Expectations" survey that finds "customers expect more from electric vehicles than automakers are able to deliver."

What he fails to point out is that it's very likely few if any of those 13,000 people Deloitte questioned have even seen, in person, an electric car, much less driven one. They have little or no idea of what these automobiles can do, other than the usual apprehensions about price and range. Sure electric cars are expensive. So are a lot of low production, high technology products. You checked on the price of a new Cessna 172 Skyhawk lately? They are ten times more expensive than they were when I started flying in 1974.

Of course, everyone wants an electric car that you can drive 300 miles before you have to pee and refuel… and those cars are available today already IF you happen to live in places like Southern California. Honda would be happy to lease you a FCX Clarity or Mercedes-Benz a new B-Class F-Cell fuel cell electric sedan that will carry you 280 miles (400km) and takes less than 10 minutes to refuel. You just have to have hydrogen conveniently available. [NOTE: fuel cells produce electricity from combining hydrogen and oxygen, making them also 'electric cars' by definition]. And if you don't live where hydrogen is near at hand, the Tesla Model S will sometime next year carry four adults 300 miles if you buy the big battery pack. The Fisker Karma will take you 50 miles on electric power and another 250 on gasoline. Volt owners enjoy driving 1000 miles on a single 8-gallon tank of fuel in their normal day-to-day commutes.

Harding concludes his premature obituary with a warning that "Electric vehicles may be the next Solyndra, throwing taxpayer money after a politically preferred outcome, rather than trusting the market place to consumers."

Ah, Russ… where do you want American industry to be in 2020, especially the auto industry in your own state? Shuttered and moved to the lowest cost labor markets or vibrant, alive and competitive, producing 21st century vehicles that lead the world in technology?

Don't we have to give those consumers you talk about a choice? Or do you want them all driving electric and fuel cell cars with Asian badges in 2030 and Detroit an abandoned waste land of overgrown, delapidated buildings? Oh that's right, much of it already is. I wonder why?

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