By SHAWN DELL JOYCE
It's hard to be sympathetic to the Big Three automakers, who recently pleaded with Congress for a cash bailout. Congress already had designated $25 billion to help the automakers transition manufacturing from SUVs to more efficient models. "But why should taxpayers be asked to pay for this change of business model?" asks James Gattuso of The Heritage Foundation.
Gattuso points out that no one forced Detroit to design inefficient SUVs, and "for many years SUVs and minivans were a golden goose for the Big Three." Now, with the inevitable rise of gas prices, the Big Three are scrambling to compete with Japanese automakers, who have been manufacturing more efficient models all along.
In the movie "Who Killed the Electric Car?" General Motors sabotages its own electric vehicle, the EV1, through negative marketing, a failure to produce cars meeting existing demand, and unusual business practices with regard to leasing versus selling. The film hypothesizes that electric cars need fewer expensive repairs and would not generate profit over the long term, as gasoline-powered cars do. The film also describes the history of automakers' efforts to destroy competing technologies, such as our extensive public transit systems in the early 1900s. GM crushed its EV1 fleet despite the fact that consumers were willing to be arrested to purchase it. GM shelved the EV1 technology and began touting Hummers.
In effect, GM allowed Toyota and Honda to take the lead in developing hybrid technology. In an about-face, GM is touting its all-electric Volt as a reason the company deserved federal aid to avoid bankruptcy. GM vowed before Congress to spend $758 million through 2012 on the Chevrolet Volt and its technology.
In this year's auto show in Detroit, the Big Three introduced electric concept cars, while Toyota and Honda already have tested plug-in models that garner 100 miles or more per gallon of fuel. Chrysler unveiled the Dodge Circuit, to be put in production in 2010, alongside GM's Volt. Ford is planning for all-electric models in 2012 and improving its Fusion's fuel efficiency.
Most of us are not buying cars in the recession, so by the time we do, our next cars may be electric cars. So what's the benefit?
Electric cars will reduce carbon emissions. Each kilowatt-hour of battery power used will displace up to 50 gallons of gasoline and 978 pounds of carbon emissions (according to Environmental Protection Agency statistics).
Electric cars are cheaper to run. A 2006 research estimate in California found that the operating cost of plug-ins charged at night was equivalent to 75 cents per gallon of gasoline. Also, the batteries can be connected to the national electric grid and used to store and transport electricity. This is particularly useful in areas of high demand during peak usage times, such as office buildings in big cities when all the air-conditioning units are on and straining the grid. Parked cars could feed energy into the grid, reserving enough for people's trips home.
Electric cars are easier to maintain and cost less to service. There are fewer moving parts in electric motors, and oil filters and changes would be obsolete.
The biggest drawback of this new technology is battery power. With current battery technology, it costs about $10,000 extra per car to get the 60-mile or more range that most of us demand. This pushes up the price and is the main reason hybrids cost more than traditional cars on showroom floors. Battery technology needs to improve, and battery packs need to be designed for reuse and recycling.
The free market already has stepped in to fill the empty void left by Detroit. Entrepreneurs have developed aftermarket kits to convert hybrid cars into plug-in hybrids and double the gas mileage. To run a Toyota Prius with an aftermarket plug-in kit will cost you about 3 cents per mile, based on electricity costs of 10 cents per kilowatt-hour and the car getting 129 miles per gallon.
Economically and environmentally, it makes sense to start transitioning away from fossil fuels with plug-in hybrids now and moving toward full electric vehicles when the grid is supplying renewable energy.
Instead of bailing out automakers, perhaps we should help them build cars that make sense. It may be decades before cars using fuel cell technology are within most consumers' price range. Let's use the technology we have readily available and start the transition with our next vehicle purchases.