M.D. Harmon: Electric car mandate comes with cost in dollars and lives


It’s a cliché that Americans love their cars, but there’s a group of our fellow countrymen who don’t.

They’re called liberal environmentalists, and everything they’ve done during those times when they have achieved political power shows they despise the internal combustion engine, which may be the most liberating and economically beneficial device ever invented.

The issue of how people can best get from place to place is complex and multifaceted, but the free market is perfectly capable of resolving it.

Or at least it has been, until the government decided that its preferences and priorities should overrule those of its citizens.

That assault is continuing and intensifying under the Obama administration, and offers yet another reason why replacing the current crowd in Washington is the primary prerequisite for recovery.

Our economy and our freedom to travel (they are strongly linked, by the way) are threatened by the current toxic combination of over-the-top environmentalism (reaching its most corrupt form in the campaign against “climate change”) and the deep-rooted hatred on the left for the ability of the average American to get in his own private vehicle and drive wherever and whenever he desires.

Strong words? Yes, but not too strong. Take a look at some historic and current federal policies aimed at the private automobile, and the fact that the left thinks the automobile is wasteful and should be abandoned is the only conclusion you can logically draw.

Let’s start with federal mileage standards, expressed in the government’s Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) regulations. Under the headline, “Gas mileage boost means pricier cars,” CNN Money reported last November that “New federal gas mileage rules … will add thousands of dollars to the cost of new cars.” The Environmental Protection Agency, which aims for an average of 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025, says that consumers will save enough money in gasoline costs to balance the estimated $3,000 (in today’s dollars) that those changes, plus others in the works, would add to the price of a new vehicle.

But according to the non-profit Center for Automotive Research (www.cargroup.org), whose principal funding comes from the federal government, conferences and the states, the actual increase in cost per car would be closer to $10,000. And that’s if such an increase in mileage is even possible.

Shikha Dalmia, a senior analyst at the Reason Foundation and a frequent writer on technological issues, called the new rules “a war on cars” in an article last July. Under the headline, “The Coming Autopocalypse,” she said that progress to date on improving automobiles’ fuel efficiency has been achieved primarily by reduced vehicles’ weight, using lighter metals and advanced composites instead of steel.

But that has come with a heavy cost, first in money, because the cars are much more expensive both in absolute terms and in terms of percentage of average income.

However, there is another cost that is rarely revealed by federal regulators, although highway safety officials are well aware of it. It is the cost in human lives paid when vulnerable bodies are strapped into lighter, less crashworthy cars and trucks.

A. Barton Hinkle, a columnist at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, added up the toll in an essay last July. He wrote, “In 1999, USA Today reported that CAFE standards had been responsible for 46,000 deaths since 1978. In 2003, a study by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration found that reducing a vehicle’s weight by 100 pounds increased fatality rates 3 percent for light trucks, 4.7 percent for big cars and 5.6 percent for small cars.”

In collisions between big cars and small cars, the big car wins. “SUVs heavier than 4,500 pounds have a death rate less than a third of cars weighing under 2,500 pounds.”

Will making all cars smaller solve the problem? No, Hinkle notes, because tractor-trailers won’t shrink, and neither will trees, bridge abutments or telephone poles. “Almost half of all deaths in small cars occur in single-car crashes,” the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety reported in 2009, meaning that unsafe cars are unsafe cars, no matter what they hit.

What’s the hidden agenda? (With this administration, you know there is one.) Gloria Bergquist of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers says the new CAFE standard is “really a mandate for electric vehicles.”

But as Dalmia points out, “even the EPA admits that the market share made up by hybrids and electric plug-ins will have to touch 49 percent if the industry is to come anywhere near compliance. Given that these vehicles now only account for 3 percent of the market despite hefty subsidies, it is a foregone conclusion that expanding their presence will mean massively expanding subsidies to them.”

That was a prediction borne out in the last few days, as President Obama proposed adding $10,000 in additional taxpayer money to the $7,500 tax rebate that has been attached to electrics and hybrids. You not only get to buy your own cars, you get to buy your neighbor a Prius, too. Lucky you.

But in a column titled “Electric cars and liberals’ refusal to accept science,” which ran in The Washington Post on March 5, Charles Lane noted that production of the Chevrolet Volt has been suspended due to poor sales, making reaching the administration’s goal of having 1 million electrics on the road by 2015 running more than 900,000 short to date.

The limitations on alternate energy sources, Lane says, “reflect stubborn scientific facts.” Oil packs a lot of energy into a small quantity of fuel, and is cheap, portable and convenient. The Volt would have to last for nine years with gas at $5 a gallon to make it more economical than the equivalent Chevy Cruze with a gasoline engine.

And besides, electric cars aren’t really electric cars. What they are is coal-fueled, nuclear-fueled or natural-gas-fueled cars, depending on what generating source is used to recharge them.

Battery technology is another scientific issue: Federal regulators appear to be assuming scientific breakthroughs can come on demand, while current technology appears to be stalling both on battery expense and projected lifespan — who will buy your five-year-old car when its batteries will cost tens of thousands of dollars to replace? — and the assumption that rare minerals and metals used in their production will continue to be available in the substantial amounts necessary for fleet conversion.

While the president expresses his ideology in saying we have to abandon oil as a fuel, the reality is that economy will use it as its primary source of energy for transportation and many other purposes for decades to come.

Fortunately, we have a lot of it –even though the current crowd has locked up to 90 percent of it out of production. But that can change if the people creating our energy policies change.

Instead of demonizing oil companies that make 8 or 9 cents on a gallon of gas (while federal and state taxes soak up 42 cents or more), we should be exploiting our huge supplies of oil and natural gas while letting the market find efficiencies that it will naturally develop as free people interact with each other in a free economy.

The alternative is stagnation, economic decline and a lower standard of living — just the opposite of what America used to be. But it can be all that again with the right choice of energy and other economic policies and opportunities.

M.D. Harmon, a freelance writer, is a retired journalist and military officer. He can be contacted at mdharmoncol@yahoo.com.