Sunday, February 11, 2007

“Who Killed the Electric Car?”

As I mentioned in Denver to New Zealand--A Midwinter/Midsummer Vacation, I watched "Who Killed the Electric Car?" while flying to New Zealand. And as I have indicated in I Want One, I am very interested in at least one electric car . . . and, possibly, others as well. (I have been interested in alternative fuel cars ever since I was a boy when I read that the Stanley Steamer was the fastest car of its era; that it could go from forward to reverse without shifting gears, and its major flaw--besides occasionally exploding (a charge that the Wikipedia "Stanley Steamer" article denies)--was, as I recall, that a person might push a bit too hard on the brake and find him- or herself suddenly thrown from the vehicle when it went from high speed acceleration forward to high speed acceleration backward in an instant.)

But back to "Who Killed the Electric Car?"

The film is an ode, more or less, to the EV-1, a General Motors vehicle I had never heard of before, and an investigation of why the vehicle was developed in the first place, why “no one“ ever heard of it, and why there aren't any more on the street today.

A very powerful piece of propaganda (if that's what you want to call it). Or an effective piece of investigative reporting. It impacted me deeply. In fact, it has caused me to question some of my political ideas and/or commitments.

Example: The film has someone--Ralph Nader, I believe--say that virtually "all" the major improvements in automotive safety and efficiency in the last 50 years have come about as a result of federal regulations. The car companies themselves, he said, didn't bring us seat belts, 20 mpg or better fuel efficiency, low-emission engines, etc. Oh, they developed the technology, all right. But they didn't make these a regular part of the cars that all of us drive until the federal government mandated the improvements.

Now, that gets me thinking. From a marketing perspective. Of the three technologies I have mentioned--seat belts, fuel efficiency, and low-emission engines--which could have been achieved without federal mandates?

Seat belts. Couldn't they have become standard equipment without mandates? It would have required some significant education to get people, first, to purchase them in significant enough quantity to lower their costs.

Or would it?

I wonder if the Detroit manufacturers of the late 50s and 60s would have been "able" to put in seat belts if the Japanese manufacturers of the 70s and 80s had been present to spur them on? Aren't there a lot of manufacturers today who build their cars with additional steel bars and plates and additional airbags . . . and who tout their resultant superior safety records?

Apparently, they find these safety features pay for themselves through added sales.

Or do they? Or, should I say, would they if they were seeking to appeal to the mass market? Is it the case that, yes, they can make money as long as they are selling to the high-end car buyers, but no, they would lose money if they added all these additional features and tried to sell them to the lower end of the market--the people who can afford the $10,000-25,000 new vehicles?

Fuel efficiency and emissions are very similar, to my way of understanding.

A year or two ago, I thought I would like to buy a Prius for Sarita. The Prius would be our second car, a commuter car. (What hybrids are supposed to be best suited for: efficient for stop-and-go, around-town driving.)

Except, as I recall, even calculating an average of $3.50 a gallon for gas, it would take something like 10 years or more, at the rate Sarita drives, to make up the $9,000 price differential (as I recall) between the Prius and the Corolla. . . . So we bought the Corolla.

So it is, I'm afraid, with most automobile technologies. Unless and until they become mainstream and/or mandated, so that all new cars use the technology, the price differential is too great for most consumers. . . .


Another example of how the film caused me to question my previous ways of thinking:

Overall, I have been only moderately critical of George W. Bush from early in his presidency for a number of reasons.

Some things have driven me absolutely nuts:
  • He (and the Republicans in general) have seemed wimpy, lacking in backbone or conviction.
  • I "can't believe" what a fiscally irresponsible "leader" he has proven to be, refusing to veto any spending increases and, in fact, adding large sums of money to plans already approved by the supposedly "liberal" Democrats.

    (In the '80s, it was popular to speak of the "tax-and-spend" liberal Democrats. I had come to the point where I began speaking of the "borrow-and-spend" [supposedly conservative] Republicans who put our nation in horrendous debt.)
I have questioned his wisdom in venturing into what appear to be foreign entanglements. (Although in today's world, as at least one friend has noted, people around the world are so interconnected economically, let along socially and politically: it is hard to argue that what happens in a place like Iraq is truly of no concern "back home.")

But I am no knee-jerk Bush-basher, either.

However, in "Who Killed the Electric Car?" I was stunned by revelations about Bush and about Reagan and their policies concerning oil . . . and energy. Absolutely stunned. (Assuming, of course, that the film speaks the truth.)

According to the film, Jimmy Carter, in 1977, I believe, announced a policy that, he said, would keep the United States from every importing more oil than it had in 1976. I believe the figure he mentioned was 8.5 million barrels of oil imported per day. Something like that.

I vaguely remember some of the policies and regulations put into place during Carter's tenure. Vaguely.

Some of the policies had to do with automotive fuel efficiency--CAFÉ, as it was called--Corporate Average Fuel Economy, "the sales weighted average fuel economy, expressed in miles per gallon (mpg), of a manufacturer’s fleet of passenger cars or light trucks with a gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR) of 8,500 lbs. or less, manufactured for sale in the United States, for any given model year."

And between 1976 or '77, when the regulations went into effect, and early 1980-something, the average car sold in the United States went from something like 14 mpg to almost twice that.

Whatever. Automobile fuel efficiency skyrocketed.

When Reagan came into office, however, many of Carter's energy policies were reversed.

Tax credits that Carter had helped enact in order to encourage greater investment in solar energy--solar roof panels to heat buildings and water, for example--were reversed.

Carter had placed solar panels on the White House roof; Reagan had them removed almost the moment he moved into the White House.

The film offered no reasons why Reagan had done such a thing. I imagine it was largely symbolic: Carter's era and the years immediately preceding him had been full of austerity and economic hardship. Reagan probably wanted to signal--what I recall was a chief campaign theme--a new day in America.

But why waste the benefits we, the people of the United States, had already paid for? Why waste the energy that the Sun provides and that the White House had been equipped to capture?

The film's revelations of these things bothered me.

I have been very interested in fuel efficient buildings and cars, not just intellectually, but practically . . . if I could possibly justify the purchase of such things in economic terms.

I mentioned the Prius.

I had us pay an outside consultant who specializes in these things evaluate the feasibility of us using geothermal energy as a conservational measure for the building we constructed for Sonlight back in 1999. Sadly, under even the most positive analysis, as I recall, the energy savings wouldn't have paid for the additional costs in 20 years. --A 20-year payback is equivalent to a 3.53% compound return on investment.

And some analyses suggested the payback could take up to 50 years. . . .

So that measure made no sense to me and I refused to make the investment.

But Reagan destroyed an energy conservation measure that had already been paid for. Why? That made even less sense, it seemed to me.

The film emphasized these shifts at the federal level. And the revelations bothered me.

But what really burned me up was the revelation that, under George W., at the very time the federal government was removing $4,000 tax credits for fuel-efficient electric cars like the EV-1 (and others), they added tax deductions for 6,000-pound fuel-guzzlers like the Hummer: up to $100,000 per vehicle!

A $100,000 deduction for purchasing a gas guzzler, and the elimination of the very modest $4,000 benefit for electric cars?

I was shocked and angered to hear such a thing!

And Bush claims to be concerned about the environment and fuel conservation?
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