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The Inconvenient Truth About Cars

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By Pete Geddes

I have a hockey-playing buddy who is converting
an old Honda Civic into an electric car. His goals are modest; he’d
like it to be able to make the round trip from Bozeman to Bridger Bowl.
I wish him well with this fun and constructive project, but I expect it
will be some time before we see electric cars on the road. Here’s why.

U.S. energy policy is best described as “keep it cheap.” It’s ironic
that our political class is berating the Big Three for building the
vehicles Americans bought in response. Congress is now poised to
mandate that Detroit manufacture electric and hybrid vehicles. This
approach is bound to fail, for these are cars consumers (a) don’t want
and (b) even if they did, can’t afford. The recent plunge in the price
of gas at the pump has not helped. November sales of hybrid cars fell
50 percent. U.S. hybrid sales are now back where they were in 2005.
(Ford’s best selling product in November was the F-150 pickup.) Only
when electric and hybrid vehicles really do provide more value to
consumers than the alternatives will they succeed.

There is a straightforward way to transition the U.S. auto fleet to a
greener future. Place a gradual tax on gasoline such that in five years
it reaches a floor of $5 per gallon. Nothing else will work, certainly
not the Rube Goldberg approach Congress has taken since the 1970s, best
exemplified by the Corporate Average Fleet Economy (CAFÉ) standards.

In a masterstroke of special-interest politics, the UAW used CAFÉ’s
“two fleet” rule to forbid Detroit from importing smaller cars from its
foreign operations. Forced to build small cars in domestic plants, with
above market labor costs, Detroit could not make a profit. (In 2007,
Toyota made 9.37 million vehicles and GM about the same. Toyota made a
profit of about $1,874 per car, while GM lost $4,055.) Even Japanese
and European carmakers rely on sedans with moderate fuel economy for
profits. Small, super-efficient cars remain a niche product. Here’s an
inconvenient truth: forcing Detroit to build fuel-efficient cars in UAW
factories is inconsistent with viable, sustainable manufacturing.

Critics often portray the Detroit automakers as “greedy, short-sighted
profit seekers.” To claim Detroit is refusing to sell cars consumers
“really” want, compared with the cars they actually purchase, is a
stretch. Is there a simpler explanation? Perhaps alternative cars are
simply not ready for prime time?

The Financial Times
reports on a French government study that analyzed the options for
building cleaner, more fuel-efficient cars by 2030. After reviewing a
leaked copy, the FT notes: “It [the report] concludes...there is not
much future in...all electric-powered cars. Instead, ...the traditional
combustion engine powered by petrol, diesel, ethanol or new
biofuels...offers the most realistic prospect of developing cleaner
vehicles. ... {T}he overall cost of an all-electric car is unviable at
around double that of a conventional vehicle. Battery
technology...still...severely limits performance both in terms of range
and speed.”

The Wall Street Journal’s Holman Jenkins’ coverage of this issue nails
it: “Ford and GM in Europe successfully sell cars that are small, but
not cheap. Europeans are willing to pay top dollar for a refined small
car that gets excellent mileage, because they face gasoline prices as
high as $9. … In the U.S., except during bouts of high gas prices or in
the grip of a Prius fad, the small cars that American consumers buy
aren’t bought for high mileage, but for low sticker prices. And the Big
Three, with their high labor costs, cannot deliver as much value in a
cheap car…. {Legislators] won't repeal CAFE because they fear the
greens. They won't repeal CAFÉ’s “two fleet” rule...because they fear
the UAW. They won’t hike gas prices because they fear voters.”

Shouldn’t our energy policies be crafted to meet their stated
objectives? Because policymakers avoid imposing obvious costs, they
favor fuel economy standards. Then they can duck blame by hiding the
costs in higher car prices. The honest and effective approach to fuel
economy is a floor on the price of gasoline.

Pete Geddes is Executive Vice President of FREE.


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