Right now, it now seems as if the first American car to need no gas for most daily commutes has been short-circuited. The rollout of America’s GM Volt has been jolted, not just by an economy that has had Americans reeling for the last three years, but by attacks from media allies of the fossil fuel industry, like Rush Limbaugh and Fox News.
A calculated attack from one political party and its spokespeople on the first mass-produced American EV as an “Obama-mandated death trap” made by a “corporation that’s trying to kill its customers” has had its intended effect on sales.
This month, the Volt—the first mass market EV sedan—had to halt its U.S. production temporarily.
“We did not engineer the Volt to be a political punching bag,” new GM CEO Daniel Akerson said at a Congressional hearing in January. “And that, sadly, is what the Volt has become.”
The January congressional hearing—or inquisition?—at which Akerson testified was titled, in a reference to the Watergate coverup: “Volt Vehicle Fire: What Did NHTSA Know and When Did They Know It?”
The Republican-held House Oversight regulatory subcommittee trumped up charges of fire danger that were not borne out by the facts: that after six months of routine tests, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration had cleared the Volt of any fire risk.
Republicans have never held hearings into fires in fossil-fueled cars, yet we have always lived with fire risk from gasoline ignition. In 2010 there were 184,500 fires in gasoline-powered cars, resulting in 285 deaths and 1,440 injuries (data).
So it seems as if the electric car has been killed for the second time. The first was in the ’90s, when under the less-enlightened leadership that drove the Big Three to bankruptcy, GM lawyered its own way out of Californian climate policy (like this current policy) that required the development of vehicles with low to no greenhouse gas emissions.
But that relationship broke up with the bailout. “The oil industry didn’t do us any favors when we were going through bankruptcy and they were making billions of dollars in profits,” GM’s new spokesman for environment and energy matters, Shad Balch, told the California Air Resources Board (CARB) in February.
This second death appears to end a progressive chapter in climate policy history, this time with Republicans as proxies for the fossil industry. But their opposition to gasoline competition didn’t just begin in the last year.
Although the nascent fossil industry received huge subsidies to get going (oil cost over $500 a barrel when it was first drilled in the 19th century), Republicans in Congress have consistently refused to allow anything other than a tax credit to subsidize the jump-starting of post-gasoline driving, which ensures that the only early adopters of the Volt are the few who remain financially secure after 2008.
If you don’t owe more than the tax credit in taxes, you can’t take the Volt’s $7,500 tax credit. Since the national median wage of $26,000 to $30,000 is in the 15 percent tax bracket (incurring taxes of under $5,000) this tax credit does not help most people afford the switch from a gas car, even though gas exacts a much heavier toll on the pocketbook over the years.
By contrast, Japan subsidized the beginnings of the Prius by paying half its initial cost, speeding the day that it became affordable.
However, things could change over the next few years.
The Obama administration—in the 2009 American Recovery & Reinvestment Act (ARRA), aka the stimulus—made a strategic investment in advanced battery technology, with a huge investment of more than $5 billion in grants and low-cost loans to battery manufacturers. The U.S. Department of Energy funded hundreds of companies, researchers, startups and university labs working on next-generation battery technology under the Recovery Act.
The announced goal was to cut battery costs in electric vehicles by 70 per cent by 2015, propelling the U.S. ahead of Japan and Korea to global leadership in the next generation of advanced electric vehicle technologies.
That investment is starting to bear fruit.