November 20, 2008

Should US Tax Payers Bailout the Electric Car Killer?

Bill Georgevich reporting

Hear the 1 minute show:

While the US Treasury and Congress debate whether to save the Big 3 carmakers, environmentalists and renewable energy activists ponder whether General Motors, the Detroit auto manufacturing giant that killed their electric car 10 years ago, should be given a second chance. Some say that the 100 mile-per-gallon Chevy Volt promised in 2010 is too little, too late.

Tax payers are faced with a real dilemma. Should we support bailing out the Big 3 in Detroit? After all, investment banks got federal money to cover credit default swaps, which are unsecured side-bets on imaginary financial instruments. GM, Ford, and Chrysler are real brick-and-mortar companies that build real goods and employ millions of Americans. The news pundits warn that the challenged economy can't tolerate a shut down this large in the Midwest. Imagine hundreds of thousands of auto workers marching on Washington, with the fierceness and fury of Martin Luther King, demanding that Uncle Sam save the most powerful symbol of American manufacturing from extinction and mass layoff of over a million people.

Patriotism aside, how did GM and the rest get themselves in this mess? We may be quick to assume that like the Dow, Detroit is going down with the sinking ship the banking and mortgage crisis. The timing of the sudden run on government bailouts may suggest that the Big 3 are just another victim of the financial fiasco of Oct 08. No, it's just odd timing. Detroit's demise, if it comes to that, is by it's own doing – decades of poor decisions, culminating in it's most recent choice to continue making low mpg cars and trucks, even as gas prices hit $4+. Folks couldn't unload their SUV's and find enough high mpg cars to replace their daily driver. When they did, most of them were made in Asia.

GM made big cars because their ad consultants told them that big cars made drivers feel powerful. When city folks I know, who only drive in the city, purchased SUV's, their excuse to me was always that in a crash, big cars are safer. Physics would support that until every American seemed to be driving bigger and bigger cars.

Instead of making advances in hybrids and eletric vehicles, GM not only discontinued their only electric car after making only 1100, they decided that even less than a thousand on the road offered too much of a challenge to their gas-guzzing hegemony and actually had them towed away from their clinging lessees -- who offered GM millions just to keep the cars -- and crushed them!

Should we really have sympathy for car company that decided it was better to sue the State of California and overturn it's 10% zero-emission law rather manufacture a constantly improving electric car?

And what about this Volt? This hybrid sounds promising: You plug it in to power the first 40 miles, after which a gasoline powered generator makes just enough electricity to keep you going. 100 mpg or more is predicted for the car. Though GM would have you think it's breakthrough technology, it isn't, really. Every diesel locomotive ever made operates on the same principle: generate electricity to power the electric motors pulling the train. They are the most fuel efficient system in the world. When were they invented? 1920. So the Volt, we discover, is an old technology that GM finally decided the American driver was ready for.

The conclusion we come away with is that there is some kind of collusion between oil companies and domestic Detroit Iron. And somehow the wild and wacky speculation in oil futures (which was solely responsible for the dramatic gasoline price hike earlier this year), threw things out of control and drivers got spooked.

The car companies have known about the threat of high gas prices and shortages since the mid 1970's, but to hear the CEO's of these companies talk today, you would think that this problem suddenly occurred in the last few weeks. In a separate story we will talk about the real purpose of GM's introduction of the Chevy Volt - and it's not about getting good gas mileage or lowering our carbon footprint. Stay tuned.