- - Wednesday, December 6, 2017


Standing on principle is admirable, but sitting on a Plan B just in case is smart. Automakers are doing both to navigate the obstacles they face in building vehicles both powerful and clean. It’s only wise strategy — the future of the fuel is fuzzy.

Major automobile manufacturers vow to do their part for the environment by speeding the shift from gasoline to electric power. In July, Volvo announced it would cease production of cars powered only by an internal-combustion engine. Beginning in 2019, all new models will be electric or hybrid. Ford and General Motors are gearing up to put dozens of electric varieties into their showrooms by 2023. Volkswagen, under pressure from the German government to ban fossil fuel-powered vehicles by 2030, says it will introduce 30 electric models by 2025. Great Britain, France, Norway and India say they will make gasoline-powered cars extinct on their roads. California is considering a similar ban.

The automakers want President Trump’s regulators to relax stringent Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) fuel-economy standards enacted during the Obama administration, which require the nation’s fleet to average 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025. For comparison, the 2018 Honda Accord, which gets a remarkably efficient 38 miles per gallon on the highway, is a gas guzzler. A less-stringent and more reasonable target is under consideration.

The Obama-era Environmental Protection Agency reckons that the fuel-efficiency upgrades needed to achieve its mileage goals will cost an extra $1,800 for a new car in 2025, but would save between $3,400 and $5,000 in reduced fuel costs over the life of the car. But that comes with an asterisk of considerable size.

When the current standards were implemented in 2012, the average cost of a gallon of gasoline was $3.64, and the projected savings were based on the assumption that the average price would jump to $3.87. To the shock (and no doubt disappointment) of some of the bright lights at the EPA, the average price of a gallon of gasoline stands now at $2.48.

Unless the price at the pump leaps skyward again and stays there over the next several years, the money the Barack Obama’s EPA promised will never come to pass. It’s only prudent that automobile manufacturers hedge their bets by building affordable cars that run on affordable gasoline while developing reliable plug-in models.

Electric cars don’t generate a current — they just store it in big, heavy, expensive batteries. The electricity stored in them must come from somewhere, and policymakers everywhere are reconsidering the consequences of a world without an appetite for oil. Just as President Trump declared an end to his predecessor’s war on coal, Spain has joined Germany and Poland in balking at the shutdown of coal-powered electricity-generating plants that are crucial to the life of the electrical grid. If the lights go out, the batteries that power all those zero-emission cars will do what all batteries eventually do, die.

With a tripling this year in the price of cobalt, a critical ingredient of batteries, relying only on all-electric cars is similar to rushing into the dark woods with a flashlight that occasionally blinks out. For now, automobiles still need a boost from gasoline. The internal-combustion engine, which has proved itself in war and peace for more than a century, is not done yet.

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