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Should America support electric cars? The Washington Post says no

January 3, 2012 - 02:49 PM
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President Obama tests a Chevy Volt. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The spirit of New Year's Day typically looks toward the future. We think of possibility and planning and how to make the next 12 months better. Imagine my surprise when I turn to the Post and read the editorial, cleverly titled "Overcharged," that celebrates the demise of one subsidy for electric car station installation and laments the continuation of another. "Electric cars are not likely to form a significant part of the solution to America’s dependence on foreign oil, or to global warming, in the near future," the Post declares. "They simply pose too many issues of price and practicality to attract a large segment of the car-buying public."

Although the Post raises certain valid points, the conclusion here hardly seems a fair or complete one and falls short of addressing any real reason why. The newspaper paints electric cars as a bourgeois luxury and the subsidies a "giveaway to the well-to-do." To support them constitutes a "bad investment." But isn't that awfully short-sighted?

Of course electric cars are expensive now. They're an entirely new transportation investment, and yes, the infrastructure and models are costlier at present. What they need is scale and widespread use if the costs are ever going to lower, and subsidies are one attempt to accomplish that. Despite hurdles, the electric car hardly burned out in the past year. Auto companies sold about 15,000 Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt electric vehicles to U.S. drivers in 2011, according to recent sales estimates, a figure that is cause not for celebration, in the editorial writers' eyes, so much as reason to dismiss President Barack Obama's hope to have a million electric vehicles on the road by 2015.

No doubt the Post sparked some powerful emotions with this editorial. The little piece now clocks close to 2,000 comments and hundreds of tweets and Facebook reactions. Many happily agree that supporting electric cars is a waste.

But others make exactly the observations that cause me to hesitate when reading the Post's indictment of the electric car subsidy. Consider this reaction from Randy Essex:

WaPo urges end to EV tax credit. Sounds like Literary Journal in 1899 calling "'horseless carriage' ... luxury for wealthy.”
Jan 03 via Twitter for iPadFavoriteRetweetReply

Others joked, scoffed, or outright dismissed the paper's argument.

"Wait! Is the Post in Rupert's pocket too?" Larry Oliver tweeted. Electric-car aficionado Chelsea Sexton said, "The unsubstantiated, ranting, anti-EV hit piece has become cliché." A man based in Israel saw international implications in the move: "The U.S. is about to lose yet another economic opportunity to China." He likely referred to this reality, reported in fall of 2010: "Beijing just announced that it was providing $15 billion in seed money for the country’s leading auto and battery companies to create an electric car industry, starting in 20 pilot cities." Torque News makes a compelling case that the Post editorial creates a straw man of the electric car and greatly misses the mark ("Demanding that electric cars solve global warming and foreign oil dependence overnight makes it impossible for electric cars to look like a success," the subhead reads). Another person on Twitter mused that, in light of this editorial, 2012 will not be kind to the electric car.

I've talked about the limitations to the electric car as it stands now. Owners of electric vehicles may suffer from "range anxiety" without the right infrastructure, I recently observed, as they worry about their ability to charge up their cars. But dozens of charging stations are coming to the D.C. metro area. Major auto makers are investing in electric and producing models of a variety of costs. Enough investment, ownership, and infrastructure seems liable to create a critical mass that could change the transportation world. In the long run, the technology has great potential to pay off, and comparison to the ethanol subsidies is, while understandable, not necessarily appropriate. Oil is hardly a tenable fuel for the future, and we need to move away from it, whether we tap propane, electric, or any other fuel.

The Post is right to question the subsidies and whether there's waste involved ... but I wouldn't hit the brakes on electric vehicles just yet. It would be a shame to close ourselves to so rich a possibility so early in the new year.

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