Op-Ed: Should the Government Anoint an Automotive Savior?

There’s a lot of debate about what the government should, and shouldn’t spend money on. One item that is cause for plenty of debate is the $7,500 EV tax rebate. Should the government have a say in what we drive?

Jeremy Anwyl over at Edmunds Auto Observer makes a fairly convincing case that the government should keep its hands out of the market, and let the competing technologies battle for dominance. He argues that the cleanest car right now is the natural-gas powered 2012 Honda Civic GX, followed by the all-electric Nissan Leaf according to ACEEE. Under the hood is a high tech internal combustion engine that delivers less pollution than the zero-emission Leaf. Anwyl says that when the government hands out a $7,500 tax credit (or perhaps soon, cash-on-the-hood) it crowds out other promising types of technology, like natural gas, hydrogen and whatnot. Some of these technologies have been around since the 1970’s, he says. What about them?

What about them indeed. What hasn’t hydrogen, or natural gas, or propane gone mainstream? Well, all these engines have one thing in common; the internal combustion engine. The technology dates back to the 1860’s, and we’ve become so used to the idea of filling up our fuel tanks with oil, that switching to another fuel is just downright inconvenient. I’ve looked for public propane and CNG fueling stations in Connecticut, and there are a few, but not enough. In some cases I’d have to use a quarter of my fuel just to get to the station and back. And replacing the oil in our fuel stations would require tearing huge tanks out of the ground and major reconstruction of our fueling infrastructure.

We’re talking a works project on the scale of the U.S. Interstate system to make epic change from oil. The two exceptions would be ethanol and biodiesel, both of which would still require vast amounts of private and public money to make available for a majority of the nation. Really think about it. Oil is the easy way out, and we are gonna drill baby drill until it is all gone. Which one day, it will. Even the oil execs will admit to that. There is something familiar about the hum of an idling engine, and you don’t get that with electric cars. Maybe that is what makes them so familiar.

Yet the fueling infrastructure for electric vehicles is already in place all around us. Yes, charging stations will need to be installed here and there, in garages, homes, and on sidewalks. Would that be better than the 100,000+ gas stations crowded on street corners and causing infuriating traffic congestion (we’ve all been there.) But American miles traveled seems to have peaked, the average staying right around 12,000 miles a year. That is only about 32 miles a day, which is well within the range of most electric vehicles right now. It’s not a replacement car; it’s a second car, and most Americans already have one of those, and often times a third and a fourth. With some investment though, there isn’t any reason it can’t become our main form of transportation. The Truth About Cars argues that depending on where you live, EV’s may or may not be the cleanest mode of transportation. Fair enough, but everybody needs electricity, right? The fueling structure is in place; it just needs to be tapped in key locations.

In Europe, this will cost $10,000 less than the Leaf, but with $100 per-month battery lease.

Right now the battery technology is still too expensive for what it offers. Nissan should have done for the Leaf what Renault is doing for their Zoe EV and lease the battery, bringing down the price by thousands of dollars. Perhaps after X-number of years of ownership, offer the leasers a buyout price if it ends up being popular. I feel like if Nissan had priced the Leaf closer to $25,000, it would have a lot more lookers.

Instead though, it needs the $7,500 Federal tax credit for a lot of regular people to even take it into consideration. Ethanol, propane, natural gas and other alt-fuels all have their own tax credits, incentive programs, and private investments. When it comes down to dollars and cents, I don’t know how even the playing field really is. But it isn’t like there is a huge electric car lobby either. EV’s are still the real underdog here, because we’re not just stuck on oil, but on the internal combustion engine too. If anything, the government investment is the only hope we have of adopting a new, cleaner mode of transportation, because as many people have shown, they’ll just keep buying fuel-intensive fuels until they all but go broke.

It isn't going to get much better than this, ladies and gents.

We should quit while we are ahead, because right now the whole world seems to be on a roll as far as combustion engines go. Ford brought back the famous 5.0 with over 400 horsepower, as do the Camaros and Challengers. We’ve got 550 horsepower station wagons (Cadillac CTS-V), $100,000 supercars (Corvette ZR-1) and affordable, fun little cars that can get 40 mpg without any sort of hybrid system.

How much better can it get, and at what point does it become unfordable? Will we still have muscle cars like the Mustang when, not if, gas hits $10 a gallon?  Should we really stick it out with the internal combustion engine and see how far we can drag it out before we’ve exhausted every type of conceivable fuel? Or should we really and truly try to invest in something new, different, and in many ways exciting? These are the questions I find myself pondering.

I am a fan of a lot of alternative fuels (to run my dream muscle car fleet on), but no matter what the “fuel of the future is,” it will still be using an internal combustion engine, which means everything that goes along with the ICE (transmissions, driveshafts, exhaust systems.) And until we can get over that, we are ultimately limiting what car makers can make, for us. As Anwyl pointed out, many of these alternative fuels have been around for a long time. Perhaps they didn’t catch on for a reason. The government has prodded automakers towards safer, more efficient vehicles since the 1970’s, and the cars we know and love today are as much a result of that prodding as the automakers own internal machinations. We don’t give the government enough credit in this area; cars with seven air bags that can go 160 mph and support five times their own weigh with their roof? I mean come on, that is awesome. Alas, as long as we rely on oil, we are going to be at the will of speculators and dictators, and I’m not sure that would change with any other fuel, including EV’s. But at least we’re not going to run out of electricity any time soon, and in something as important as transportation, the government shouldn’t waffle. Focus like a laser, and git ‘r’ done.

The real reason, though, that I want the government to spend money convincing people to buy electric vehicles is a selfish one. I’d like there to be some oil left over 20 or 30 years from now, that doesn’t cost $100 a gallon, so I can fill up some 1960’s relic and lose myself in a simpler time while the world buzzes around me in electric cars.

That way, when I stomp that obsolete gas pedal, everybody within a five mile radius can appreciate the roar of an old, nearly extinct dinosaur still roaming the streets.

Chris DeMorro is a writer and gearhead who loves all things automotive, from hybrids to Hemis. You can follow his slow descent into madness at Sublime Burnout.

Christopher DeMorro

A writer and gearhead who loves all things automotive, from hybrids to HEMIs, can be found wrenching or writing- or else, he's running, because he's one of those crazy people who gets enjoyment from running insane distances.