April 19, 2012
It’s unfair to claim that the recent
explosion at a General Motors battery-research lab is a metaphor for the hapless
crusade to shift American vehicles to alternative fuels.
But the blast, which injured an employee and caused
millions of dollars in damage, does offer evidence of petroleum’s
indomitable incumbency. So do several headlines from the last few months:
• Fisker Automotive cut 26 employees in February. USA
TODAY reported that the
electric-car company, the recipient of a federal loan guarantee, lost access to
government cash because it “failed to meet production and sales milestones.” A
few weeks before Fisker’s layoffs, battery manufacturer Ener1, another U.S. Department
of Energy dependent, filed
• In March, GM halted
-- temporarily, we are told -- production of the Volt. The Wall Street Journal has characterized the plug-in hybrid as “skidding
halfway to Flop City.”
• Research by R.L. Polk & Co. has found that loyalty to
hybrids is weak. Auto website TheDetroitBureau.com summarized
the firm’s shocking finding: “[N]early two of three … owners wind up returning
to a more conventional vehicle when it’s time to trade in.” Earlier this month,
in a unlikely admission, The New York
Times reported that with two exceptions, “the added cost of [hybrid]
technologies is so high that it would take the average driver many years -- in
some cases more than a decade -- to save money over comparable new models with
conventional internal-combustion engines. That is true at today’s pump prices,
around $4, and also if gas were to climb to $5 a gallon.”
• Autos that lack hybrid gizmos, yet still offer impressive fuel
economy, continue to materialize in showrooms. Ford tells The Detroit News that in
2013, its Escape SUV will not only “top the competition” in efficiency, but
beat last year’s model by “an additional 4-5 mpg.” For sedan-seekers, the
Chevrolet Cruze, Ford Focus, Hyundai Elantra and Veloster, and Volkswagen Jetta
and Passat (diesel versions) each have highway ratings of at least 40 mpg.
Misguided attempts to reduce -- if not eliminate -- petroleum
use in the U.S.
transportation sector have been causing trouble for some time. Since the 1970s,
security” nonsense from neocons and apocalyptic ravings
by eco-fabulists have spurred legislation to address a problem that’s hardly
as dire as alarmists assert.
Nearly 20 years ago, the Clinton
administration announced the “Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles”
(PNGV). The White House gushed that the effort, aimed at dramatically boosting
mpg rates, was a “challenge comparable to or greater than that involved in the
Apollo project.” But with little to show for $1.5 billion in subsidies, Clinton’s successor
scrapped the PNGV in 2002.
Letting hope and politics triumph over experience and science,
George W. Bush’s energy bureaucrats pursued “Freedom Cooperative Automotive
Research,” an laughable blueprint to make fuel cells viable. One guess as to
what happened when Barack Obama replaced Bush. Yep, hydrogen was abandoned, and D.C.
turned its attention to the latest trendy “game-changer”: electrification.
So far, the Obama administration’s green-car enterprise resembles
the foiled schemes launched by his predecessors. But never one to reverse
course, the 44th president can be relied on to press ahead, guided by a vision of European
After all, aren’t our neighbors across the Atlantic
saving the planet with the automobiles of the future? Not exactly. Over there,
the market share for hybrids and all-electrics is in the low single digits,
just as it is in the “wasteful” U.S.A.
Even in the nation said to have the most politically correct energy consumption
in Europe, crude remains king. Last year, Canadian
journalist Michael Vaughan visited Iceland, “hoping to find the Green Highway.”
What he found came as a disappointment to the Birkenstock-wearers brave enough
to read his account: “Traffic jams and gas stations. Big, ugly, gas-guzzling
SUVs everywhere and, according to a Reykjavik
newspaper, exactly 11 electric cars in the entire country. And what’s the main
topic in today’s energy discussions? Oil drilling in Iceland’s fishing grounds.”
If high petroleum prices are here to stay, American motoring will
change. Telecommuting options will be offered by more employers. Higher fuel
efficiency will be favored by drivers and fleet operators. Clean diesel will enjoy
greater acceptance. Sales of natural-gas
vehicles, already rising, will surge. (Cheap fuel from the shale boom
is sure to help.)
But neither lifestyle-police hectoring nor billions in taxpayer
subsidies will establish fuels that cannot be economically justified.
Energy transitions take time -- in some
cases, centuries. Forcing “progress” produces technological dead ends and
D. Dowd Muska (www.dowdmuska.com) writes about government, economics, and technology. Follow him on Twitter @dowdmuska.
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