Blog What’s The Goal, Green Vehicles Or Gas Guzzler Subsidies?

Similar to some other automakers, the vehicles currently on offer from Dodge-Chrysler-Jeep include quite a few, such as SUVs, minivans and pickup trucks, that aren’t really tooled for the motoring future that’s already unfolding. That’s a future with high gas prices that will be staying high, sharply slowing sales of gas-guzzling pick-ups and SUVs, and consumers ready to buy plug-in hybrid electric vehicles by the boatloads if automakers can deliver them with reliable lithium ion batteries and at prices of, say, $30,000 or less.
That price point is apparently the aim for GM’s Chevy Volt, a PHEV to watch.
So with gas now pushing past $4 a gallon, what does Dodge-Chrysler-Jeep do? Accent their plans for future-facing vehicles? No. They unveil a promotional campaign to try to sell more of their energy hogs with a three-year subsidy to buyers to keep their gas costs at $2.99 a gallon. New York Times syndicated columnist and energy inquisitor Thomas Friedman has a pointed take.

….reckless initiatives like the Chrysler-Dodge-Jeep offer to subsidize gasoline for three years for people who buy its gas guzzlers are the moral equivalent of tobacco companies offering discounted cigarettes to teenagers.
I can’t say it better than my friend Tim Shriver, the chairman of Special Olympics, did in a Memorial Day essay in The Washington Post: “So Dodge wants to sell you a car you don’t really want to buy, that is not fuel-efficient, will further damage our environment, and will further subsidize oil states, some of which are on the other side of the wars we’re currently fighting. … The planet be damned, the troops be forgotten, the economy be ignored: buy a Dodge.”

Friedman goes on to approvingly cite an economist’s suggestion there actually be a price floor for unleaded regular gas of $4 per gallon, supported by mandatory increases in the federal gas tax if the market price goes lower, and with compensatory payroll tax deductions for those earning under $80K per annum. Whatever one thinks of the proposal, Friedman’s central point is that the government needs to send a clear message the days of cheap oil and cheap gas are long gone and that consumers and fleet owners need to look ahead, to new technologies and fuels, not behind. He writes:

We need to make a structural shift in our energy economy. Ultimately, we need to move our entire fleet to plug-in electric cars. The only way to get from here to there is to start now with a price signal that will force the change.

Author Paul Roberts and the World Wildlife Fund report that the environmental benefits of plug-in electric cars accrue even if the electricity comes from fossil fuels. But as they both add, the cleaner the electricity, the greater the benefits of PHEVs and all-electric vehicles. That’s why the Pacific Northwest is an ideal proving ground for a consumer-focused PHEV pilot project. Here’s where clean hydro-power already reigns, where renewable energy sources are beginning to ramp up, and – deep breath, please – where nuclear power is slowly gaining traction, which Seattle Times editorial page editor James Vesely discussed last weekend, and his colleague Kate Riley detailed last spring. Even those fusty authoritarians at Wired are singing the praises of nuclear, both last week, and in greater detail as far back as 2005.
There’s something happening here. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, R. James Woolsey, director of the CIA for president Bill Clinton, and Paula Dobriansky, current Undersecretary of State for Democracy and Global Affairs (pictured at right), herald the coming clean technology revolution in transportation. They stress the need for broad adoption of PHEVs running on clean electricity, and advanced second-generation biofuels made from sources including forestry and farming waste, and grasses. Also key, they write, are amped-up support from the feds and leading U.S. corporations for more production of electricity from nuclear technologies and from coal-fired power plants that sequester carbon. That last approach is something at the heart of a Washington-state based research project that should be allowed to continue, over misguided objections, as the Times’ Riley recently opined.
Green-powered plug-in hybrids mesh with congestion pricing to ration peak hour highway capacity and carefully crafted public-private partnerships to fund necessary transportation infrastructure improvements. Public transit that can truly compete on travel times and convenience is part of the equation, as are expanded corporate transit, para-transit, and telecommuting. All are strategies to help manage growth, ease mobility and maintain environmental quality in burgeoning metro regions. Nobody said this would be easy.
Advanced navigational systems will help reduce congestion and pollution, too. That topic, along with congestion pricing and PPPs, will be covered at the June 26 West Coast Tolling And Traffic Management Workshop that our Cascadia Center will sponsor at Bell Harbor Conference Center on Seattle’s waterfront. And save the date for our Sept. 4 and 5 conference, “Beyond Oil: Transforming Transportation.”