Elec­tric cars and gas pains

Au­tomak­ers go ‘greener than thou’ at the ex­pense of the not so rich

The Washington Times Daily - - EDITORIAL -

Moral preen­ing isn’t pretty, and “greener than thou” is all the rage in Europe. Volvo says that start­ing in 2019 it will no longer man­u­fac­ture gaso­line-only cars, only electrics or gas-elec­tric hy­brids.

The day af­ter that an­nounce­ment, France an­nounced that it would press to end the sale of gaso­line-only ve­hi­cles by 2040, join­ing what The New York Times glee­fully calls “a grow­ing move­ment to force the ex­tinc­tion of ve­hi­cles that run on fos­sil fu­els.”

Even that’s not nearly as am­bi­tious as in Nor­way, which hopes to have only elec­tric ve­hi­cles for sale there by 2025. What that would mean for the econ­omy of Western Europe’s largest pro­ducer of crude oil is cer­tainly not clear.

It’s all in fevered pur­suit of driv­ing a stake through the heart of car­bon emis­sions, the boogey­men un­der the beds of en­vi­ron­men­tal ex­trem­ists ev­ery­where. That boogey­man looks a lot like Al Gore, the man whose new global-warm­ing hor­ror film opened in lim­ited the­atri­cal re­lease on Fri­day to de­cid­edly mixed re­views. Few stand­ing ova­tions this time.

Volvo will surely en­dear it­self to the green left by be­com­ing the first ma­jor au­tomaker to aban­don cars pow­ered solely by the in­ter­nal-com­bus­tion en­gine, and CEO Hakan Sa­muels­son proved he has a sense of hu­mor. He said Volvo’s de­ci­sion was dic­tated by cus­tomer de­mand, which left them laugh­ing ev­ery­where. Sales of hy­brids and all-electrics are but a frac­tion, a tiny frac­tion, of sales of con­ven­tional au­to­mo­biles. The Volvo de­ci­sion was more likely dic­tated — and “dic­tated” is the ex­act word— by the gov­ern­ment-im­posed cor­po­rate av­er­age fuel-econ­omy (CAFE) stan­dards.

In Au­gust 2012, the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion de­manded that au­tomak­ers in­crease their fleetwide fuel econ­omy to an av­er­age of 54.5 miles per gal­lon for cars and light-duty trucks by the 2025 model year. This fol­lowed an ear­lier in­crease to 35.5 mpg by 2016, which was ac­com­pa­nied by an in­crease of 14 percent in the num­ber of high­way fa­tal­i­ties from 2014 to 2016. The Na­tional Safety Coun­cil says the “most dra­matic two-year es­ca­la­tion [in high­way deaths] since 1964” can be traced in no small part to the CAFE stan­dards, be­cause the only way car­mak­ers can com­ply is to use lighter-weight ma­te­ri­als.

The use of less steel and more plas­tics and com­pos­ites means cars are faster but flim­sier, even the big, heavy cars that the for­mer pres­i­dent rides in, and are less pro­tec­tive in crashes. The num­bers of high­way fa­tal­i­ties will rise as the higher CAFE stan­dards are phased in over the next eight years.

That’s where the push for more all-elec­tric and gas-elec­tric hy­brids comes from, a way for au­tomak­ers to meet the fu­el­ef­fi­ciency stan­dards. But that as­sumes that con­sumers want to buy them — and can af­ford them.

Auto-in­dus­try an­a­lysts pre­dict that other au­tomak­ers will fol­low Volvo’s lead, with lux­ury brands go­ing first. “More high­vol­ume main­stream brands will be a lit­tle slower,” says for­mer au­to­mo­tive en­gi­neer-turned-con­sul­tant Sam Abuel­samid of Nav­i­gant Re­search.

The hefty price tag comes with in­dulging green preen­ing. Those who can af­ford the lux­ury auto brands are the same folks who can af­ford the pre­mium prices of all-electrics, such as Tesla’s new Model 3, the first 30 of which were rolled out with con­sid­er­able fan­fare in Fremont, Calif., last week.

Tesla touts the Model 3 as a “mass mar­ket” elec­tric car, but its $35,000 base price and av­er­age op­tions-pack­age price of $40,000 (and up to $60,000 with all the bells and whis­tles) still daunts the av­er­age U.S. house­hold bud­get.

“In the U.S., the me­dian house­hold in­come is $56,516,” Bankrate.com an­a­lyst Claes Bell tells The Wash­ing­ton Post. “At that in­come, a lot of folks are go­ing to have a hard time af­ford­ing a ve­hi­cle around $30,000 in price, much less any­thing higher.”

There’s a U.S. fed­eral in­come-tax credit of up to $7,500, to en­cour­age and sub­si­dize the pur­chase of cer­tain elec­tric and plug-in hy­brid ve­hi­cles. In Nor­way, the gov­ern­ment not only for­gives the taxes it im­poses on sales of other cars, it al­lows elec­tric cars to use bus lanes and toll roads at no charge.

That in turn should daunt those both here and in Europe who cham­pion all-electrics and plug-in hy­brids, be­cause sub­si­dies amount to in­come-re­dis­tri­bu­tion up­ward to those af­flu­ent enough to be able to af­ford to in­dulge their “greener than thou” bona fides.

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