14 February 2007
How Hybrids Beat Out the Electric Vehicle in the US Automarket
Car companies like Toyota and Honda are finally starting to warm up to the idea of marketing more fuel-efficient vehicles, introducing models like the Toyota Prius, the Toyota Highlander Hybrid, and the Honda Civic Hybrid, the three top-selling hybrid vehicles on the market for 2006i. While these more fuel-efficient cars do increase the MPG rating to averages of 47mpg, 25mpg, and 46mpgii, one has to wonder why car companies are still turning out vehicle models that are dependent on gasoline at all. In the mid-1990's GM introduced the EV1 in response to the California Air Resources Board (CARB)'s 'zero-emissions' standards, a vehicle that got 55-75 miles per charge (mpc) with lead-acid batteries and 75-150 mpc with the Generation 2 Ovonic nickel-metal hydride batteriesiii without zero emissions at the vehicle level whatsoever. So why have car companies forsaken the electric vehicle in favor of the low-emission (but still emitting) hybrid? Car companies like Toyota and Daimler-Chrysler have partnerships with oil companies like ExxonMobil to improve fuel-economy standards for future vehicles, but none of them involve the development of an all-electric vehicle. Simply, the Bush Administration, backed by oil companies and car manufacturers, can not profit from the mass-production of electric vehicles. Instead, hybrid vehicles that still consume oil and emit greenhouse gases, are this century's compromise between environmentalists and Bush's Big Oil.
General Motors has a history of partnering with oil companies to increase profits, starting with the Great American Streetcar scandal in the early 20th century. National City Lines, a holding company of General Motors, Firestone Tire, Standard Oil of California and Phillips Petroleum bought out more than 100 electric trolley systems in major cities, including San Francisco and New York, and replaced them with GM buses. The aim was to create a need for the motors, tires, and oil that each company had to offer in this newly-created transportation sector, since no company could profit off of electricity. Today, GM still partners with oil companies ChevronTexaco, ExxonMobil, and BPAmoco for fuels research and processing, and partners with Shell on Hydrogen Fuel Cell research and initiatives.iv The independent documentary "Who Killed the Electric Car?" (2006) intimated that these ties to big oil companies may be the reason why GM officially discontinued its line of EV1s in 2003. GM is not the only car company to partner with Big Oil: ExxonMobil has partnered with Toyota to "research improvements in internal combustion fuel and engine systems that could result in a 30% improved fuel economy and reduced emissions" and with DaimlerChrysler to "develop new lubricants to improve fuel economy, extend oil change intervals and lower emissions."v While this doesn't completely implicate car companies in the suppression of an all-electric, zero-emissions vehicle, it explains their reluctance to find the necessary technology to creating an oil-free future.
As business partners with the world's leading automobile manufacturers, including Toyota and GM, oil companies almost certainly have sway over increased fuel efficiency technologies and innovative models. American car companies GM and Ford, the manufacturers of the majority of all heavy-duty models over 6000 pounds, keep U.S. oil companies like ExxonMobil rich with their low-fuel-efficiency vehicles, so the natural resistance that these oil companies have to new energy policies stems directly from their fear that oil profits will drop with increased fuel-efficient vehicles. ExxonMobil's website claims that "governments at all levels are responding to growing concern about climate change by taking policy action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions...where these policies restrict fossil fuel use or add cost to their use, they can also retard economic development."vi
While curbing greenhouse gases may ‘hurt’ the economy, ExxonMobil claims in the same document that "hydrogen is widely considered to hold promise as an energy carrier, particularly because it offers the potential for fuel-efficient, emissions-free vehicles." They, along with Shell, heavily promote a hydrogen fuel economy, largely because they already have fueling stations in place in and possess the capital to provide a hydrogen refueling infrastructure: "Shell already has a hydrogen platform of production... over 50 million tonnes are produced and consumed ever year... bringing hydrogen to places where consumers can access it as fuel for their vehicles."vii In fact, no oil company mentions electric vehicles or plug-in hybrid vehicles on their websites at all, because they can't capitalize on the electricity that would be used in the recharging of the cars. This also explains why major car companies are slow to manufacture plug-in hybrids or widely-available electric vehicles: not because of lack of technology, but because of their lack of desire to shift energy sources from their oil company partners to coal-powered electricity plants. Despite claims by car companies that this move to electricity would simply 'shift pollution' from one source to the other, electric vehicles are still 95% cleaner than the most low-emitting conventional vehicle, even considering pollution and emissions derived from powering cars by electricity.viii
President Bush's administration has also impeded progress toward the development of electric and plug-in electric vehicles, largely due to close ties with both oil companies and car manufacturers. Oil executives from ExxonMobil, Conoco, Shell, and BP all met with representatives of Vice President Cheney's Energy Task Force while developing national energy policy, and information from the hearings of this secretive task force have not since been made available to the publicix. The administration also offers tax cuts for purchasing Hummers, a GM-manufactured vehicle, allowing deducations of up to $100,000 on the vehicles under the Jobs and Growth Act of 2003x. Simply put, President Bush's energy policy revolves around keeping consumers dependent on oil companies for fuel, which keeps Big Oil and car manufacturers in business, supposedly stimulating the American economy. So with no profit-making incentive to develop electric vehicles, car companies will keep pushing back production dates for all-electric models, even though the technology was here with the EV1 ten years ago.
Car manufacturers like Toyota and GM claim on their websites that the reason for the lack of electric car availability has to do with inadequate technology, namely in battery development, as well as lack of consumer demand for electric vehicles. The link to information about the Toyota RAV-4 EV on Toyota's website claims that one of the reasons why Toyota discontinued this all-electric vehicle line in 2003 was because "It is cost-prohibitive to replace an EV battery...the cost to replace the battery is more than the value of the vehicle."xi Although it's true that a replacement battery for a Toyota RAV-4 EV costs around $20,000, the battery technology for smaller all-electric vehicles is more cost-efficient and available now: Lithium-based battery technology can allow full-sized, highway-capable vehicles to travel as far on one charge as a conventional car could on a gallon of gas. The Tesla Roadster, a fully-electric vehicle produced by Tesla Motors, can travel up to 250 miles on one charge with its lithium-ion batteries.xii This fact contradicts the marketing statements from car companies that electric vehicles don't have a long enough driving range for consumers: the fact is that the average number of miles driven each day by Americans is 29xiii, well below the driving range of even the most basic electric vehicle.
For this reason, consumers are also to blame for the lack of availability of all-electric vehicles or plug-in Hybrids in the American consumer market. General Motors, Ford, and Toyota all push to market larger vehicles because Americans demand cars and trucks that are bigger, stronger, and faster than smaller fuel-economy vehicles. The Hummer H3, the Toyota Tundra Pickup, and the Ford F250 Truck are all front-and-center on the car manufacturer's websites, each averaging about 10-15 mpg. Consumers have been led to believe that larger trucks are safer, stronger, and capable of more, as truck commercials repeatedly feature demonstrations of the vehicles' strength and off-roading capabilities. This type of psychological marketing is what will make consumers choose heavy-duty, low-fuel-efficiency trucks over small, zero-emission electric vehicles any day: Americans want the option and illusion of strength and power, even though most people have no need for vehicles that large. Even Toyota's explanation of why the RAV-4 EV was discontinued barely mentions the capabilities of the EV, but instead markets the Prius as something " larger, faster, get[ting] better fuel mileage than before".xiv Until Americans can recognize that Hybrids are a compromise to satisfy oil companies and growing fuel-efficiency standards, car companies will continue to take advantage of their uneducated consumer decisions.
So, through a combination of technological reluctance from car companies, fear of loss of profits by oil companies who partner with auto manufacturers, and the willingness of the Bush Administration to stagnate environmental policy progress to the benefit of both, hybrid vehicles beat out ZEV's in the marketplace for very simple reasons: they still keep Americans going back to the gas stations, and they maintain Big Oil's monopoly on transportation fuel in the United States. A dependence on oil justifies Bush's foreign policy in Iraq, keeps America's industrial economy strong, and keeps oil and car companies rich. Even Toyota, who produces the top-selling Hybrid Prius, receives enough fuel-economy credits through the sales of its Hybrids to keep on producing even more heavy-duty trucks for the mass-market. Electric vehicle technology was here ten years ago, but until oil companies can make a profit off of the electricity needed to power the cars, there is no economic incentive for them to be developed. The future of electric vehicles rests in the hands of independent companies who, hopefully, will slowly increase demand for ZEV's from the bottom up, to let major car manufacturers know that their excuse that "there is no demand" is completely false.
i New Hybrid Car Reviews: Hybrid Car Review and Research at Automotive.com
ii Consumer Hybrid Mileage Database - GreenHybrid.com
iii General Motors EV1 - Wikipedia.com
iv GMability Advanced Technology: GM Technology Partners
v ExxonMobil Energy Essentials
; Tomorrow's Energy: A Perspective on Energy Trends, Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Future Energy Options. ExxonMobil, February 2006. www.exxonmobil.com
vi ExxonMobil Energy Essentials; Tomorrow's Energy: A Perspective on Energy Trends, Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Future Energy Options. ExxonMobil, February 2006. www.exxonmobil.com
vii Shell Hydrogen: About Shell Hydrogen
ix Energy Task Force - Wikipedia.com
x Taxpayers for a Common Sense Whitepaper Website: Vehicles that Qualify for the SUV Tax Break. http://www.taxpayer.net/TCS/whitepapers/SUVtaxbreak.htm
xi Toyota Website: Vehicles: RAV-4 EV
xii Tesla Motors website - www.teslamotors.com
xiii "Who Killed the Electric Car?" Documentary: Sony Pictures Classics, 2006.
xiv Toyota Website: Vehicles: RAV-4 EV