What an interesting year for the auto industry! I certainly wasn’t bored as I ran around covering the dramatic events, which included the Japanese tsunami, a whole bunch of electric and hybrid rollouts, consolidation in the industry (the death of Saab and Aptera), controversy over government loans (to Fisker and Tesla, among others), the federal fuel economy standard of 54.5 mpg by 2025, and a cautiously optimistic sales year.
I had fun driving a bunch of the new cars, from the Chevy Volt and the Nissan Leaf to the Tesla Roadster, the Buick LaCrosse and the Ford Focus. What’s in my driveway now? Why, none other than a pre-production 2012 Toyota Camry Hybrid (left), a revamped vehicle that lets you pilot a pretty roomy family sedan and still claim 40 mpg around town and 38 on the highway. Come to think of it, that’s essentially the selling point of the LaCrosse, too.
In many ways, the fate of green cars is up in the air as the calendar turns. To clear the fog off the crystal ball, we’d need to know the price of gas for all of 2012, as well as the outcome of GM’s battery fire woes, the price of new rollouts like the Ford C-Max Energi plug-in hybrid, and a thousand other imponderables. There’s plenty of material for New Year’s resolutions, that’s for sure. Here are five things I’d like to see happen in 2012:
1. Fuel economy rules: This is the year for GM, Ford and Chrysler to, finally, acknowledge that the way forward isn’t paved with gas-guzzling trucks and SUVs. In late 2011, as Automotive News puts it, GM “is making more money than it has in its history, adding jobs and gaining market share.” The industry overall is looking at a 13.4-million-vehicle year. And why? Because it started leading with cars like the Chevy Cruze and the Ford Focus. Dodge plans to bring back the compact Dart next year as a Fiat-based 40-mpg 2013 eco-car, a very good idea (speaking as a Dart owner). Truck buyers are lining up for the F-150 — the bestselling vehicle now — and they want the EcoBoost V-6 (derided by Car and Driver as “a hood-mounted tofu dispenser”) not the V-8s.
2. Pricing gets real: Let’s face it, battery cars are expensive, and it doesn’t make them any cheaper to use smoke and mirrors to hide the prices. Automakers do this by including the $7,500 federal income tax rebate in the boldface type it shows consumers. An example, from Tesla Motors, is here: The Model S at just $49,900! Oops, make that $57,400. The Fisker Karma just raised prices by a whopping $10,000 making this fledgling entry on the market $102,000 (for the EcoStandard) and $116,000 for the EcoChic. But those prices look better as $94,500 and $108,500. To jump start this fragile market, let’s forget the games and work on actually reducing the price of these cars. Everybody is saying that lithium-ion battery costs are coming down; OK, so let’s reflect that in the hit to consumers.
3. Hands across the aisle: George W. Bush got one thing right: He liked green cars, especially the hydrogen-powered ones. The Republican Party once stood with the Democrats in endorsing investment in made-in-America eco-cars and technology (including batteries that would otherwise be made in Asia). But this year, the spirit of the Tea Party brings with it suspicion of any government spending, and EVs have been a particular target. The reporting on the Volt battery fires has been vicious, and columnists are hoping that loan recipients Tesla or Fisker will hit the bankruptcy button, so they can pounce on a Solyndra-type Obama failure. John Voelcker in GreenCarReports has documented the ludicrous reporting of Matt Drudge attacking the Chevy Volt. Drudge ran a screaming headline quoting the Audi chief as calling the Volt “a car for idiots,” a remark that was more than two years old, made before the car had even been shown. Rush Limbaugh has been just as ham-handed, missing no chance for a cheap shot at Obama (see a detail of his flaming Volt image above). Here’s a verbatim quote from his Dec. 6 radio show: “GM owned by the regime, what did they project, 10,000 sales and they’ve sold about 1,100 of ‘em, something like that. I forget the number, and they’re all bought with other people’s money, every purchase is subsidized. Now they’ve got battery problems. The cars are supposedly catching fire...” Thanks, Rush. They sold 6,100 in the first 11 months, and one car caught fire three weeks after a government crash test. Mitt Romney defends his position opposing the auto bailouts that saved the domestic industry. I know it’s an election year, but in 2012 can we at least agree that having American automakers is a good idea?
4. We stop worrying about electric cars actually being green: I’ve been busy promoting my new book, "High Voltage: The Fast Track to Plug In the Auto Industry" (Rodale), which makes an excellent last-minute stocking stuffer! And there are two questions I get repeatedly: Aren’t battery cars just moving the pollution from the tailpipe to the smokestack? And won’t I be stuck with a huge bill when the battery pack fails and gets thrown into a landfill as toxic waste? Let me lay these questions to rest: I document in "High Voltage" that on a well-to-wheels basis, a battery car charging from an all-coal grid (as in Midwestern states like Indiana) has the environmental profile of a Toyota Prius. And that isn’t bad. The battery packs have either eight- or 10-year warranties, and they aren’t likely to fail, anyway: Consumer Reports tested a pack in a 200,000-mile 2002 Prius and found it still going strong. The batteries are likely to get reused as utility backup, and the lithium in them recovered. And lithium isn’t even very toxic, so these batteries present far less of a problem in landfills than the current lead-acid standard.
5. We get off the dime on charging: Eelectric cars are likely to be charged at home 80 percent of the time, so a public charging network isn’t as important as some people think it is. But there are big gaps that need to be addressed, and soon. Electric cars make sense as city cars, and automakers are marketing them that way (as in the BMW i3 MegaCity) but utilities haven’t done enough to actually plan for urban charging. They talk about it, and talk about it. We need charging stations in parking garages, apartment towers, airports and along major thoroughfares. Also, the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) has been slow to finalize a standard for 30-minute, 480-volt DC fast charging, a process that stands ready to revolutionize how EVs plug in. Nissan announced that it had reduced its price point for fast chargers to less than $10,000, making this option a very real possibility for municipalities and businesses. But automakers are holding back from offering fast-charging options because the standard (promised for next year) isn’t done yet. Arggh.
Despite all this, I’m optimistic. Unless I read the tea leaves completely wrong, 2012 will be the year in which the electrification of the automobile is finally on a fast track.