Sunday, November 25, 2007

The Schizophrenia of Auto Manufacturers

As well documented in Who Killed the Electric Car, auto industry executives and manufacturers' spokespersons often speak out of both sides of their mouths when it comes to greener technologies. An illuminating example is Toyota advertising the benefits of their high-mileage vehicles while joining the Detroit Three in a lawsuit against California's attempt to legislate higher mileage standards for vehicles operated in the state.

In this article from the Minneapolis StarTribune, David Morris tells the story of Ford lobbying against legislative efforts to form a task force with a nefarious goal: investigating the possibility of using the soon-to-close St. Paul Ranger plant to produce plug-in hybrid Rangers.

Morris reports that under new management (Alan Mulally, formerly of Boeing) and under pressure from competitors, Ford is rethinking their attitude toward plug-in hybrids.

GM has announced a major effort to get its new plug-in vehicle, the Volt, on the road in 2010-2012. Several dozen plug-in Priuses are on the roads in Japan, a remarkable turnaround for Toyota, a company that for years used as its tag line in Prius ads: "You never have to plug it in." The company is also developing flexible-fuel technology that could use E85 ethanol for the back-up engine.

These changes can, and should, lead Ford, the UAW and Minnesota to revisit a plan to make the St. Paul plant the basis for a new, green transportation initiative. An electricity-biofueled vehicle makes very good sense. Traveling on electricity costs about a penny a mile, compared with more than 13 cents on gas. The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that if every light-duty car and truck in America used plug-in hybrid technology, 75 percent could be plugged in and fueled at night by the electricity grid without the need to construct a single new power plant. Since we use very little oil to generate electricity, electric miles are essentially oil-free miles. If the backup engine were fueled by ethanol or biodiesel, the vehicle could reduce overall petroleum consumption by more than 90 percent.

Morris closes the piece with a tongue-in-cheek mixed metaphor: "The table is set. Will Ford step up to the plate?"