America Needs to Push Next-Generation Vehicles

OpEd by Jack Kennedy who serves in various advisory capacities to Gov. Tim Kaine and the General Assembly advancing technology public policy.

Published: 25-Dec-2007

The United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bali, Indonesia, recently concluded with 10,000 delegates from 187 nations agreeing to the Bali Roadmap, designed to bring about meaningful negotiations leading to significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions at the next climate conference, in Copenhagen, Denmark, in 2009.

The United States delegation capitulated to unanimous international pressure to advance the negotiations without setting specific reduction targets for a post-Kyoto Protocol to become effective in 2012.

Now the real technological and political work begins.

President George W. Bush acknowledged in late September that greenhouse gas emissions are a major international issue, with automobiles contributing 20 percent of the overall global carbon (CO2) emissions. The United States contributes 25 percent of all global emissions today. One should expect Virginia's Rep. Rick Boucher, D-Abingdon, to work with the Bush administration to seek to achieve a federal greenhouse gas emission reduction target in 2008.

Coal-fired power plants are a hot topic locally and internationally, as the United States generates 50 percent and China 75 percent of their electricity with coal. The United States needs to be a technology leader in clean-coal and coal carbon sequestration positioning, not only to reduce domestic CO2 coal-fired electric plant emissions, but to export and transfer clean-coal technologies abroad, thereby enabling achievement of greenhouse gas emission targets in the post-2012 world.

Technological advances for modern electric automobiles have been slow, with woefully few making a successful market entry. America needs to focus national technological and business innovation capabilities on the motor car of the 21st century.

Electric car fuel is cheap when compared to fossil fuels. An electric car charge costs less than $1 as compared to gasoline today. Assuming that electric cars use coal-fired electric plants to gain their charge, the cars would still be responsible for a third less greenhouse-gas pollution than today's conventional carbon-based gasoline-powered car.

The Toyota Motor Corp. is introducing hybrid automobiles worldwide that operate on electric power the first 40 miles of operation while the batteries remain charged. Likewise, General Motors is designing a car named Volt that operates 40 miles on electricity before the gasoline engine kicks in. The technological problem is perfecting the advanced lithium-ion batteries (now widely used in laptops and cellular telephones) to provide modern cars a driving range beyond 40 miles. Nonetheless, the hybrid car will have a significant positive impact on CO2 emissions if accepted in the marketplace since, on average, Americans drive 50 miles daily.

A unique start-up automobile company is Tesla Motors of California. Tesla now has in production the Tesla roadster with a 245-mile electric-powered range and an amazing zero-to-60 acceleration in four seconds. The company, led by young former Internet billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk, plans to introduce a five-passenger sedan version in 2010 for less than $50,000. One can review the vehicle and its futuristic mode of transportation at www.TeslaMotors.com. The key to success for Tesla is the need for mass production of the automobile to achieve economies of scale and lower per-unit cost.

Plug-in cars will not require any new significant national infrastructure, unlike the proposed hydrogen-powered car. Existing residential garages and hotel electric outlets could provide the necessary recharge for the new breed of electric car. It is estimated there is sufficient excess electric capacity within the United States to charge nightly more than 80 percent of the cars now on the nation's highways, should they become electric-powered.

Virginia's state legislature may take a proactive role if expected legislation to exempt the sales tax on electric cars at Division of Motor Vehicle titling offices is adopted in 2008. While there are now only a handful of cars that can achieve 200-plus miles on a 100 percent electric charge, adoption of a total electric car sales tax exemption would help sharply accelerate automakers' business plans to go electric in the short-term.

The motoring public should give electric cars a second look in 2008 and beyond. Reduction of gasoline consumption in automobile transport by 50 to 75 percent in 2020 would have the profound impact on greenhouse gas emissions sought at the Bali conference.

At the same time, electric-powered cars would add a positive trend to U.S. national security, while advancing a growth economy through reduction of foreign oil imports. A technologically advanced electric-powered car could also restore American auto manufacturing status to years past as a side benefit.

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