- - Monday, July 31, 2017

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Moral preening isn’t pretty, and “greener than thou” is all the rage in Europe. Volvo says that starting in 2019 it will no longer manufacture gasoline-only cars, only electrics or gas-electric hybrids.

The day after that announcement, France announced that it would press to end the sale of gasoline-only vehicles by 2040, joining what The New York Times gleefully calls “a growing movement to force the extinction of vehicles that run on fossil fuels.”

Even that’s not nearly as ambitious as in Norway, which hopes to have only electric vehicles for sale there by 2025. What that would mean for the economy of Western Europe’s largest producer of crude oil is certainly not clear.

It’s all in fevered pursuit of driving a stake through the heart of carbon emissions, the boogeymen under the beds of environmental extremists everywhere. That boogeyman looks a lot like Al Gore, the man whose new global-warming horror film opened in limited theatrical release on Friday to decidedly mixed reviews. Few standing ovations this time.

Volvo will surely endear itself to the green left by becoming the first major automaker to abandon cars powered solely by the internal-combustion engine, and CEO Hakan Samuelsson proved he has a sense of humor. He said Volvo’s decision was dictated by customer demand, which left them laughing everywhere. Sales of hybrids and all-electrics are but a fraction, a tiny fraction, of sales of conventional automobiles. The Volvo decision was more likely dictated — and “dictated” is the exact word — by the government-imposed corporate average fuel-economy (CAFE) standards.

In August 2012, the Obama administration demanded that automakers increase their fleetwide fuel economy to an average of 54.5 miles per gallon for cars and light-duty trucks by the 2025 model year. This followed an earlier increase to 35.5 mpg by 2016, which was accompanied by an increase of 14 percent in the number of highway fatalities from 2014 to 2016. The National Safety Council says the “most dramatic two-year escalation [in highway deaths] since 1964” can be traced in no small part to the CAFE standards, because the only way carmakers can comply is to use lighter-weight materials.

The use of less steel and more plastics and composites means cars are faster but flimsier, even the big, heavy cars that the former president rides in, and are less protective in crashes. The numbers of highway fatalities will rise as the higher CAFE standards are phased in over the next eight years.

That’s where the push for more all-electric and gas-electric hybrids comes from, a way for automakers to meet the fuel-efficiency standards. But that assumes that consumers want to buy them — and can afford them.

Auto-industry analysts predict that other automakers will follow Volvo’s lead, with luxury brands going first. “More high-volume mainstream brands will be a little slower,” says former automotive engineer-turned-consultant Sam Abuelsamid of Navigant Research.

The hefty price tag comes with indulging green preening. Those who can afford the luxury auto brands are the same folks who can afford the premium prices of all-electrics, such as Tesla’s new Model 3, the first 30 of which were rolled out with considerable fanfare in Fremont, Calif., last week.

Tesla touts the Model 3 as a “mass market” electric car, but its $35,000 base price and average options-package price of $40,000 (and up to $60,000 with all the bells and whistles) still daunts the average U.S. household budget.

“In the U.S., the median household income is $56,516,” Bankrate.com analyst Claes Bell tells The Washington Post. “At that income, a lot of folks are going to have a hard time affording a vehicle around $30,000 in price, much less anything higher.”

There’s a U.S. federal income-tax credit of up to $7,500, to encourage and subsidize the purchase of certain electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles. In Norway, the government not only forgives the taxes it imposes on sales of other cars, it allows electric cars to use bus lanes and toll roads at no charge.

That in turn should daunt those both here and in Europe who champion all-electrics and plug-in hybrids, because subsidies amount to income-redistribution upward to those affluent enough to be able to afford to indulge their “greener than thou” bona fides.

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