The Free Market
Pull the Plug
The Free Market 13, no. 7 (July 1995)
A gasoline-powered truck just towed an electric Ecostar out of my driveway. Built by Ford Motor Co. under pressure from the federal government, the "state-of-the-art" vehicle was loaned to me for the day. It was supposed to recharge overnight, but the lights on the panel display, flashing wildly, said it would not.
At your dealer, the Ecostar will cost $30,000. My vastly superior 1974 VW Beetle cost $900. So long as the market has anything to say about it, the electric car will be permanently on blocks. It could prove to be the environmental movement's worst public-relations disaster since it tried to outlaw Pampers.
The car industry is already gearing up for the first large-scale production run of the electric car. As the world's only Zero Emissions Vehicle, it is supposed to represent our driving future. The current plan, as mandated under the 1990 Clean Air Act, will require the electric car to be sold first in California and eventually in the rest of the country.
Two percent of the cars sold by GM, Ford, Chrysler, and major importers have to be electric. Otherwise, they face fines and other sanctions.
But dealers won't be able to sell these glorified golf carts. To get rid of them, car companies will have to offer tremendous discounts to anybody who will take them. Electric utility companies are the most likely. That's nice for them, since, for obvious reasons, the utilities have been among the chief lobbyists for the electric car.
Environmental groups have also pushed for electrics to eventually replace gasoline-powered cars. They argue that only widespread use of electric cars can ameliorate the dirty skies of the nation's smoggy urban areas. Without them, they claim, the feds' air quality standards can't be met—and states will lose highway dollars.
But, it turns out, existing and proven technology, used in tandem with reformulated gasoline, can make a conventional car run almost as clean as the electric model. Honda and Saab, for example, have unveiled promising prototypes, which didn't cost billions to research and produce.
Even in new cars, 95-98% of harmful emissions have been eliminated, thanks to three-way catalytic converters, fuel injection, and computer-controlled engine management systems. What's it worth to knock out that last 2-5% of tailpipe emissions?
We also have to consider performance. An electric car has a range of 75 to 100 miles before it has to be recharged for eight hours. As I can tell you, especially driving in the city, it is unnerving to watch that "tachometer" move toward 0. Less publicized is the fact that this range can plummet 20 miles when the outside temperature falls below zero. Such limited range would render electric cars all but useless during the winter months in the Northeast. These vehicles are palpably inferior to even the most rudimentary modern cars.
Then there are the peripheral difficulties that may arise if electric cars ever become ubiquitous. Will the added demand for electricity from coal-fired utility plants result in increased "stationary-source" pollution?
Available data indicate that's exactly what would happen, especially in the Northeast, where the coal burned is of the high-sulfur type. Now that nuclear power is out of the question, increase in sulfur dioxide emissions—alleged to cause "acid rain"—might go up 2,100%, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
And what about the thousands of tons of toxic lead and caustic sulfuric acid used in electric car battery packs? They weigh several hundred pounds each and contain gallons of acid.
After a period of use—just like your current car's much smaller battery—they must be replaced because they will no longer hold a charge. What will happen to all that lead and acid when these tons of used-up battery packs are "retired"? Imagine what landfills overflowing with this acid will do to ground water.
It's pretty clear that electric cars will produce a tremendous amount of pollution. It's just of a different form and originates from a different place. The fact is there really is no such thing as an absolutely "clean car." Then the questions become: How much pollution are we willing to accept in return for affordable private transportation? How are we going to decide what is an acceptable form of pollution?
Then there's the issue of safety. What happens if you are in an accident with an electric car and the battery pack leaks? The prospect of being doused with acid isn't an appealing one. The Department of Transportation mysteriously hasn't issued safety requirements for these government-mandated acid-mobiles.
Federal and state bureaucrats lack even a layman's knowledge of how a car works and what causes air pollution. Yet they are overseeing a battle royal over what we, the consumers, are allowed to drive in our own towns and cities.
And the timing couldn't be worse. The automobile industry is going through rough times and can't afford to eat tens of thousands of electric lemons. Electric cars are for golfing.