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Opinion

Our View: Fueling inertia

The Spokesman-Review

Perhaps the most eye-popping statistic uttered at a future-of-energy conference in Redmond, Wash., on Monday is that the Model T got better gasoline mileage than the current average mileage for Ford’s fleet. The event, hosted by the Discovery Institute of Seattle, was jammed with modern-day Henry Fords: innovative thinkers who dream of possibilities. The irony is that it has been Ford’s company and other automomakers that have ignored his timeless aphorisms.

“Obstacles are those frightful things you see when you take your eyes off your goal.”

The goal is energy independence. The benefits are twofold: 1) weaning ourselves from reliance on finite sources of oil, most of which comes from volatile areas of the world; 2) moving to cleaner energy sources, which would help alleviate – and possibly help avoid – calamities associated with global warming.

But automakers and many political leaders from both major parties have chosen to dwell on the obstacles, which pushes us away from the goal. The best example is their reaction to “plug-in hybrid electric vehicles,” or PHEVs, which would be like current hybrids but with perhaps twice the mileage because they could run more often on electricity. Car companies insist that hybrid batteries not be a replaceable part, so warranties essentially cover the life of a car. But waiting for perfection precludes taking full advantage of today’s batteries. We didn’t wait for cell phones to be sleek, cheap and easily recharged before using them.

On current hybrids, only about 5 percent of the battery is used before it is recharged by the gas-powered engine. Today’s battery technology would allow drivers to travel 20 to 30 miles before burning any fuel, if they could plug in their cars overnight. That would cover many people’s daily commutes. But because it is uncertain how long the batteries would last under those conditions, the government has insisted on long-term warranties. In turn, auto companies point to that obstacle in explaining why PHEVs are taking so long to produce.

“If I had asked my customers what they wanted, they’d have asked for a faster horse.”

Car companies and politicians like to hide behind public opinion when it comes to justifying inaction. They note that the public wants a car that can zoom up to 120 miles per hour (even though that’s illegal) and deliver power on demand. The problem is that such opinions are based on partial knowledge of new technology and its potential. Would a maximum of 90 mph be acceptable if it were coupled with 80 to 100 mpg?

If so, tell your automaker. Tell Congress.

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