Monday, March 30, 2009

Electric Vehicles Get the Brush-Off by TOTN Guests

Today’s "Talk of the Nation" show on National Public Radio had a segment on fixing Detroit – as in, what do we do with GM and Chrysler? In the course of the discussion, host Neal Conan’s guests – Micheline Maynard, senior business correspondent for The New York Times, and Dan Neil, automotive critic for The Los Angeles Times – more or less dissed the idea of electric vehicles having much impact in the nation’s future car mix.

Here are excerpts from the program, starting with a quote from Maynard:

"So much emphasis is being put on the Volt, and the Volt is a niche vehicle. They’re going to sell 10,000 in the first year. It’s gonna cost $40,000. This isn’t something that’s going to be an everyday car for you and me. It’s going to be a third or fourth car for a lot of wealthy people."

Neil picked up the thread:

“You want to see losing money? Wait until the Volt comes out (Maynard chuckles), because the Volt is a money loser, and that’s the problem. There’s a fundamental tension between what people say they want. They want these companies to reinvent themselves and make these high-mileage, fuel-efficient next-generation technology and all of that, and all of that is a money loser. There is no commercial case for that. I’m not saying we shouldn’t build them. In fact, I’m saying we should build them as fast as we can because they would serve a larger national strategic interest – namely oil balance of trade, global warming. But to require these companies on top of everything else they face to revolutionize their product portfolio and expect them to bear the burden of those costs is unrealistic….”

So here we have two widely read car industry observers who pretty much laughed off the whole idea of electric vehicles, even though they serve a “larger national strategic interest.” You have to wonder whether they’ve absorbed, chameleon-like, the same mindset of the industry they watch.

They’re only two people, but their comments weren’t encouraging for the future of electric cars in Hawaii, a state with an overwhelming economic interest to get off oil. That’s what Hawaii residents want, and we expect car manufacturers – American or otherwise – to get us there.

Making the Hawaii Case

Beyond the “larger national strategic interest” electric vehicles can serve, Hawaii needs to get off oil because the state is more dependent on oil than any other; electrifying transportation is a big part of what has to happen here.  

According to Hawaiian Electric Company, 63 percent of the oil imported here is used in transportation. The biggest slice goes to air transportation – admittedly a tougher nut to crack than ground transportation – but on the ground is where companies Better Place and Phoenix Motorcars have something to prove.

Oahu is the perfect test laboratory for their electric vehicles; almost all car commutes here are less than 30 miles, and most are appreciably shorter than that. If Better Place and Phoenix actually roll out their projects here as they’ve asserted they will, Hawaii could be the showcase for the first wave of electric cars to hit the street.

And if that happens, maybe even the Times newspapers on both coasts would notice.


Jay's Blog said...

I just can't wait to see these guys being made very, very wrong. Check this out.

Doug Carlson said...

Thanks for the link, Jay. It shows that others aren't brushing off the electric car market in the USA.

Doug Carlson said...
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Anonymous said...

I am also beginning to have second thoughts on the plug-in electric car. The Volt, for example, will use a South Korean lithium battery. America has no useful patents here, and this might be the last battery. I've long been suggesting the direct methanol fuel cell. Read my Huffington Post article on this subject:



Doug Carlson said...

Thanks for that observation, Pat.

The new Tesla electric sports car also took its lumps during the TOTN show. Dan Neil said the battery technology is last generation; here's part of Neil's take on Tesla:

"Tesla is a hole in California in which you pour money.... Tesla isn’t making money; they’re losing money. They’re spending money. Again, I’m not saying Tesla’s a bad company; it’s a wonderful, honorable thing, and we should all admire it. But GM knows more about car building than Tesla will ever know...."