Dumb and dumber: Silly stuff that's supposed to be green

With the recent Detroit Automotive Show focusing on electrics and the Sierra Club having an electric car columnist, America continues to believe technology will save us. Let's see how that's working.

In 2011, only 17,345 Chevy Volts and Nissan Leafs, 38 percent below projections, left U.S. showrooms while the percentage of hybrid vehicles dropped from 2.4 to 2.2 percent of auto sales. These are echoes of natural gas vehicle results and should be reminding us that the ethanol program is a debacle and the history of the CAFE, Corporate Average Fuel Economy, standards is the epitome of counter-productivity.

Australians call our American obsession with something new a “technological trap,” and I argue that it’s a key component of our national state of denial. There is no way we’re going to get out of our oil vulnerability, health, foreign policy, pollution, and greenhouse emission quandaries without addressing our individual consumption of energy, especially gasoline and diesel. We must change our lifestyles. No new product, even one with $7,500 federal subsidies like electric cars, will do the trick.

While the evidence is clear that there must be individual behavioral change, as the author of Fostering Sustainable Behavior, Dr. Doug McKenzie-Mohr, notes, we keep producing technological “solutions,” like electric cars or florescent light bulbs, instead of dealing with our daily per capita issues. Changing every light in the house (while throwing working incandescent bulbs into landfills) will affect only five percent of the typical household’s energy consumption, yet that’s our primary national household program?

Since the first oil embargo in 1973– which spawned CAFE– Americans have obliterated CAFE’s meager effect by increasing our driving four times population growth. In spite of 40 years of CAFE history illustrating convincingly that the “rebound effect” wipes out energy gains from increased fuel efficiency, our federal government demands higher fuel standards while, at the same time, building more highways and penalizing mass transportation by neglecting to support transit operating budgets?

Pouring alcohol into gasoline, meanwhile, is today decreasing vehicle mileage, further diluting CAFE, while producing the need to truck alcohol from corn fields in the Midwest to mix in oil refineries on the coasts. It takes four gallons of fuel to produce five gallons of ethanol while sparking food riots around the world and turning the Great Plains into a mono-culture; about the worst thing you can do for any environment.

How about electric cars? If they were the solution, eCars would be rolling out of showrooms, and buyers wouldn’t need to be bribed with $7,500 from a nation that's $15 trillion in debt. Even if, somehow, every car sold today was an electric, it would still take 15 years to turn over the American car fleet.

Electric cars have two huge negatives which the Sierra Club, the Obama Administration, and Detroit refuse to admit. One is “range anxiety,” as potential buyers worry about running out of juice in the heavy traffic that, for example, a snowstorm produces. Two, electrics are just too expensive to be second family cars as they are presently marketed.

With gasoline still costing against income what it did in the 1920s and facing long interstate highway trips, few choose to have an under-powered vehicle which can’t be refueled in any reasonable time frame. In my household, this becomes apparent every time we leave town. Even though my 2001 Prius has more power than either the Leaf or Volt and can be fueled at any station, my wife argues for her “get up and go” Volvo though it gets half the gas mileage and has little trunk space.

If an electric second vehicle is a plus for commuting and short trips, as marketed, an electric bicycle is simply more reasonable. An eBike can be bought for five percent or less the eCar price and can always be pedaled home. But no one is subsidizing eBikes although 40 percent of American trips are under two miles and over 80 percent of car drives are in single occupancy vehicles.

Furthermore, when Tata imports its super-cheap 4-seat Nano to America– as it plans next year– it will take 337,000 miles (beyond the lifetime of most cars) at $4 a gallon to make a Nissan Leaf a more rational economic purchase.

All the boosting by the Sierra Club, the Obama Administration and Detroit, in short, does not change reality. Gasoline won in the original, unsubsidized battle for powering automobiles for good reasons, and it will continue to win for the same reasons boosted by one huge modern concept. Infrastructure for powering gasoline and diesel engines exists along every significant roadway in the nation and infrastructure for any alternative must be built.

America should join the rest of the world today and bring our brains to energy discussions. Unfortunately, while everyone doing the research concludes that it’ll take individual behavioral change, no American politician dares challenge drivers who are also voters. Consequently,  we continue to promote driving with roads like Charlottesville’s Western Bypass instead of discouraging it as other Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development countries are doing with higher gasoline taxes, congestion pricing, traffic calming, and limited parking.

Those nations, therefore, have funds to build better mass transit and bicycle-pedestrian infrastructure while today– even in the wake of 9/11, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, regular Iranian threats to close the Strait of Hormuz, and four wars in oil fields– we’re spending 8 in 10 American transportation dollars on highways.

And hoping that technology will save us.
A former journalism teacher at Virginia Union University, Randy Salzman is the Charlottesville transportation researcher who, one spring (right before BP's blunder), penned the prescient essay predicting a massive underwater oil platform leak.


"Australians call our American obsession with something new a “technological trap,”"

Quick - name me three things Australians have contributed to science, technology, or art.

@Aldous Snow - Clever of you, but I have a feeling that it's not just Aussies that refer to our heavy dependence on tech as a trap.

Fosters, 1RAR (in Viet Nam), the Didgeridoo

"Consequently, we continue to promote driving with roads like Charlottesville’s Western Bypass instead of discouraging it as other Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development countries are doing with higher gasoline taxes, congestion pricing, traffic calming, and limited parking."

And these countries have nowhere the land mass as lots of our commuters drive many miles to a job. In an inexpensive car with already high fuel cost to income ratio. Higher taxes is not the answer. Maybe the government should force folks to move to mass transit lines.

I am currently spending $20.00 per month on electricity produced by a local ZERO emissions hydroelectric dam to drive my Chevy Volt everyday. That $20.00 along with my large car payment costs me less than my previous gas guzzling car and the money STAYS IN THE USA further benefiting the economy.


Electric cars ARE the solution.

Billy Bob; just for short drives but I bet you have another real (gas) vehicle for driving distances? Oh yes the emissions are in a pool at north anna, are very radioactive and we will have to store them somewhere.

@Aldous Snow - Australian Technology Artists and Scientists
Technology - WiFi, the electric drill, Black Box flight recorder.
Art - Donald Friend, Norman Lindsay, Clement Meadmore
Science - Sir Lawrenc Bragg (youngest recipient of the Nobel prize) Tim Flannery
Lord Howard Flory (Invented penicillin) I can go on.

@ Randy Salzman Quote "Range anxiety - - running out of juice in the heavy traffic that, for example, a snowstorm produces"
That's not range anxiety. If I was caught in a snowstorm I would hope to be in an electric car. EV's are at their most efficient when in a traffic jam and can keep the occupants warm for a lot longer than an idling ICE can. Range anxiety exists but often is reduced or eliminated when people are exposed to EV's and better understand their abilities and limitations.

What a load of rubbish. Let’s just keep on buying foreign oil... electric cars make sense. I have a 3kw solar power system and am happy to charge an electric car with this.

Electric cars, energy saving light bulbs, reduced energy usage, recycling, use of plumbed in water tanks, etc... are all part of a solution. If you don’t start somewhere, you will never get anywhere.

Oh, and if you think your 2001 Prius is more powerful and better equipped than a Volt to save on petrol, I think you need to test drive a Volt before making such comments again.

The downtown C-ville business I work for will subsidize everyone by paying $50+ a month towards parking in the parking garage, so you only pay $20 a month for parking in the City garage. If you chose to take mass transit they will not pay the $20 a month it takes for that. The tax dept says paying someone's $20 to come to work is directly paying someone's expenses to come to work and providing parking space is not. Meanwhile X who lives way out in the boondocks get $7,500 in subsidy to get a volt and then gets $50+ for parking and the guy who just lives near work gets 0.

The author makes excellent argument as to why politicians should not fight America's car culture. A few will sacrifice for the environment, everyone else will not. Do not waste money on a fight that can not be won.

raise gas taxes .50/year for the next ten years and let the free market figure out the petro problem. Also, our limited and failing rail infrastructure perpetuates the need for long range vehicles. If we had a reliable, affordable rail system, I would feel better about not having a long range vehicle for trips. Truth is, I would much prefer to have someone else take me there while I read, nap, and work instead of stressing the drive.

The author makes several assertions not based in fact.

The author stated, "... my 2001 Prius has more power than either the Leaf or Volt... ". This is demonstrably not true. I sell the LEAF at a Los Angeles dealership. Many of my customers are Prius drivers. All of them comment on the power of the LEAF compared to the Prius. I've driven the Volt as well and can confirm that car's acceleration is almost identical to the LEAF. Both EVs are significantly more powerful than the Prius.

Range anxiety is cured by the purchase of an EV. Once you've had one for a while, you realize that the 100 mile range EV actually is plenty for all of your daily driving. And it's not a "second car" as you stated, but your primary car. If you have two or more cars, as 58% of American households have, the EV is the one everyone wants to drive. The gassers are only driven when necessary as anyone who drives an EV will tell you, they are disgustingly dirty, rattle and shake for no good reason, and have poor acceleration. The car that's driven every day is your PRIMARY car. The dirty gasser is your secondary car.

The author stated, "In 2011, only 17,345 Chevy Volts and Nissan Leafs, 38 percent below projections... " Again, not true. Nissan projected 10,000 deliveries and hit 9,674 units sold. The Volt documented 7,671 units. Together, the two companies' plug-in sales were 17,345 almost double the first year sales of the Honda Insight and Toyota Prius. We've sold virtually every LEAF made, mostly many months in advance of delivery.

The worst of the article, however, is when he tries to compare the relative costs of EVs to gassers without mentioning that oil is subsidized to a significant degree. I'm not sure of his motivations, but no one should ever criticize EV incentives unless they recognize those given to oil. Here's a short list...

Direct tax incentives for oil are measured in the tens of billions. These are normal incentives for exploration, depreciation, etc. Even though the industry is profitable to the tune of tens of billions each year, they are still allocated these incentives.

Military subsidies are enormous. A recent RAND study found that the U.S. spends $80 billion each year for military protection of our access to oil. http://www.rand.org/pubs/monographs/MG838.html. That works out to 55 cents/gallon by itself. However, the Iraq war, a war that would not have been fought if they had no oil, has cost us north of $1.5 trillion and rising as we take care of the wounded soldiers. Thousands of dead and wounded soldiers are a very real cost. When you buy gas for your Prius, you pay for none of that.

The pollution from internal combustion causes the premature deaths of thousands of your fellow citizens. Many are children who are unfortunate enough to live near freeways where cancer rates skyrocket. When you buy gas, you pay for none of this.

The environmental degradation from the extraction, shipping and refining of oil is massive. Lost jobs, as in the Gulf, dead wildlife, polluted skies and waterways, all of this is a real cost of oil, but not one you pay for when you buy gas.

So, when you compare your Prius to my LEAF, please have the decency to include all of those externalities in the price before drawing any conclusions.

"bill stickers January 24th, 2012 | 9:38am
raise gas taxes .50/year for the next ten years and let the free market figure out the petro problem."

Hey Bill that's not a free market solution you just described. That's called government intervention.

Don't try a cross country drive in an EV, especially if you're going over mountains, unless you have lots of time for recharging.
On the other hand electric cars used for local errands and medium distance commuting are ideal in many ways. Things like heat and AC on the other hand are big energy consumers and shorten your range greatly in an all electric car.
A modest PV array coupled to electric cars is a truly practical arrangement for right now, much less the future. The battery bank of the car is a great match for a PV array that wouldn't suffice for household use.
Using an electric car and charging it off the grid is a poor use of grid power which comes from dirty sources; better to burn the fossil fuel directly in a gas car, but combined with off grid PV is sweet.

Mr. Salzman, your article is indeed inaccurate and biased. It's such a shame because there is a good point in there somewhere. We have similar values, so let's not incite arguments, rather form discussions.

I promote walking, biking and public transport THEN driving EVs. Cities need to be built (or rebuilt) denser and smarter. EVs are absolutely the future and without a level playing field, need the subsidies. In a pure, unsubsidized gas vs. electric contest, the economics of EVs would prevail hugely. It's all about efficiency and no other tech can do it better so far.

If you need to criticize, take aim at the developers of the sprawl, etc.

Toni - driving EVs charged with coal-powered electricity is still cleaner than burning it in your tank. There are a number of studies to back this up. A good place to start is checking out Plug in America's FAQ.

@BB: You don't know anything about what Billy Bob was talking about, do you? A Volt is a range-extended electric, so when it runs out of battery power, it can recharge itself while driving using its internal combustion engine. Second, he said HYDROelectric power, not nuclear, so your remarks about radiation are pointless.