Saturday, January 8, 2011

Turning Over a New Leaf

Gasoline just zoomed past $3.00 a gallon nationally, and over $3.40 here in California. And when that happens, as it does every couple of years, the hot topic of cocktail conversation tends to turn to more efficient automobiles. But unlike previous gas price spikes, it's no longer "…do I buy a Honda Civic instead of a Chevy Tahoe?" Now it's "…do I buy one of those new-fangled hybrids or even an all-electric vehicle?" And at first blush, there would seem to be little in the way of negatives to so doing. Even Motor Trend and Car and Driver just anointed the Chevy Volt as their Car of the Year. And surely these fine magazines wouldn't give their blessings to less than stellar efforts, would they? Umm, yes, in my opinion, they would. And here's why…

It should be noted that the concept of all-electric vehicles is not new. In fact, the earliest vehicles were powered solely by electricity. American and French manufacturers were producing electric cars as early as the 1890's. And the reason they didn't catch on and become the industry standard back then is the very same reason they will fail this time around as well.

First of all they are expensive. The new Nissan Leaf, an all-electric just debuting at your local showroom, stickers at $32,780. Vehicles in the same class available from a couple of dozen different manufacturers are priced in the $16 - $18,000 range. But wait, you say. What about the $7,500 you get back from the Feds and the $5,000 returned to you from the State? Wouldn't it make you feel just dandy to have your neighbor drive up in one of these new-fangled devices and realize that YOU helped him pay for it via your tax contributions? If these buggies are so desirable, why, I ask, should the gnarly hand of government prove necessary to coerce you or your neighbor into buying one? This same bribery is under way with the new Chevy Volt, an electric-internal combustion hybrid due in showrooms as this is written. Priced at $41,000, the Volt will cost about $33,500 after government rebates. The Volt sits on the Chevy Cruze platform, a nice little economy car which generates about 36 mpg highway and boasts a base price of $16,800. Imagine how many miles you'd have to drive at the higher relative mpg these cars offer in order to make up the difference between the Leaf's and the Volt's window price and the much less expensive machines upon which they are based. This is nothing more nor less than the Government picking winners and losers. Our masters in D.C. have decided it's a good thing to use our tax receipts to incentivize us to buy and operate these alternative vehicles, whether it is or not.

It was just reported in the L.A. Times that utility companies are working feverishly to build a network of charging stations which might (emphasis mine) enable an 80% charge in as little as 25 minutes. Until or unless that happens, buyers of the Leaf and other electrics are no less limited in range than if they had a really long extension cord dangling from back window. The net result is "range anxiety" which will I submit will never go away. Then there's the investment one must make in order to establish a home charging station. By the time all costs are in, you can figure on at least $2,000 in charging equipment, inverters, fees and permits before plugging in at the end of the day becomes a possibility. And what happens when tens of thousands of Southern Californians all plug in at the same time? Is a blackout at night when it's black out, just in time for prime-time TV viewing, in your future? And who, by the way, decided that the Leaf gets the equivalent of 99 miles per gallon? It uses no gasoline, so why not 200 mpg? Why not 1,000? The Leaf's mpg is very simply a marketing ploy foisted on us by the EPA and the DOT. But once you've driven the Leaf that 73rd mile, its reported range, I'd bet you'd be willing to give a fair chunk of change for a real car and a gallon of ordinary petrol.

And then there's the batteries. Those who've decided to do their part and help save the planet (puleeeeze!) by buying a Leaf or something similar need to know that the raw materials for the batteries they use were strip-mined in Canada and China using techniques that are among the least eco-friendly imaginable. These batteries weigh several hundred pounds and have a limited life expectancy. And the technology is so new no one knows just how long they will last. And what do you do with them when the time comes for a replacement? They will pose a major problem in terms of disposal as recycling is not possible. And what happens if you're in an accident and the first-responders need to whip out their trusty Jaws of Life to extricate you from a mangled mess of steaming steel? The jury's still out as to whether they will choose to do so, as many believe a nasty electrocution could well result.

And finally, where do those who choose this type of vehicle think the electricity they need to recharge actually comes from? Half the power plants in this country are coal-fired. The remainder are powered by natural gas or nuclear. No new nukes have been built in the last 30 years, and none are on the drawing board. And since it's generally believed by the greenies that coal is to be shunned as a future power source, don't plan on any new coal plants being built either. So it's quite likely that the electricity you have to have before your new tomorrow's-technology Leaf coasts to a stop might be as hard to find as a Simon Cowell compliment. Electricity is not hanging out there in the space waiting for us to reach out and grab it. It has to be manufactured and we have to factor in the cost of doing so in order to know the real price of acquisition, ownership and operation of the new Nissan Leaf or others of its ilk.

We're sitting on oil and gas reserves at least equivalent to those in the Middle East. We can't get at them, of course, because that might wound Mother Earth and cause the ecology-conscious among us to get all woozie. Even so, from a pure dollars and sense standpoint, there's really no comparison in terms of the cost of ownership and operation between an ordinary predictable, efficient, proven and reliable internal combustion vehicle and any of the shiny new alternatives like the Volt or Leaf.

Oh yea, back to the magazines. So why, you ask, would Motor Trend and Car and Driver salivate to the extreme about these cars if there's so very little to like about them? Simple. They're in the business of selling advertising. And who buys advertising in automobile magazines? Car companies. The same car companies who are being forced by the Feds to build overpriced cars we don't need, don't want and cannot be made to buy. The Chuckmeister, dear reader, has spoken. Only time will tell how prescient he proves to be…

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