By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

Electric car supporters have responded to a slap down by The Washington Post editorial board last week, which blamed the Obama Administration for wasting money to help launch electric vehicles, such as GM’s Volt and Nissan’s Leaf.

The Volt: Too expensive, or necessary to advance electric cars?

The opinion piece, “GM’s Vaunted Volt is on the Road to Nowhere Fast, ” accused the administration both of having “paltry” goals for electric vehicles — 1 million by 2015 — and of spending too much on subsidies for the new technology.

Consumers, it complained, weren’t buying the vehicles and “GM was losing tens of thousands” on each Volt.

That seems like a cheap shot given that any new technology costs more upfront, often way more, than it does down the line. There are development costs for paper clips on up to space ships, why would the Volt suddenly appear out of nowhere costing only as much as its sticker price. Ridiculous, right?

The Post piece did concede that “some such losses are normal in the early phases of a product’s life cycle” but it called this “cold comfort” to taxpayers who still own a part of GM.

Before we get to the response from EV advocates (reprinted in full below), here’s the Post‘s conclusion:

As these companies (GM and Nissan) flail, they are taking the much-ballyhooed U.S. advanced-battery industry down with them…
No matter how you slice it, the American taxpayer has gotten precious little for the administration’s investment in battery-powered vehicles, in terms of permanent jobs or lower carbon dioxide emissions. There is no market, or not much of one, for vehicles that are less convenient and cost thousands of dollars more than similar-sized gas-powered alternatives — but do not save enough fuel to compensate. The basic theory of the Obama push for electric vehicles — if you build them, customers will come — was a myth. And an expensive one, at that.

Nissan's Leaf, groundbreaker or boondoggle?

Here the Post gets one thing right: consumers will be reluctant to buy vehicles that cost more than comparable gas-powered cars. EV makers must make a strong case to consumers to explain how their fuel savings will compensate for higher upfront costs. We can see the beginnings of this education in TV spots where happy Volt owners brag about not having to buy gasoline. (Their electric charging costs are nominal comparatively.)

And maybe for a while, upscale buyers will be the primary buyers of these cars, just as they were for the ground-breaking Prius, which cost a little more at its introduction.

We hope more affordable electric cars are around the corner, but they won’t be unless we let the leash out on these early models. Contrary to the Post‘s conclusion that there are no winners here, we’d argue that there are winners aplenty. We all have a stake in finding transportation that doesn’t run on oil, before the oil runs out, and we will all suffer economically if we fail to mitigate climate change. That seems like ample justification for spending federal dollars to develop EVs.

Here’s what officers with Plug-In America, The Electric Auto Association and Sierra Club had to say about the Post‘s editorial:

Over 50,000 Americans have a very different view than the Washington Post’s recent, surprising portrayal of the GM Volt. We’re the people driving the new plug-in electric vehicles being brought to market by over a dozen car companies. We’re benefitting from a rebirth of American innovation and leadership in the auto industry that is creating jobs and helping free us from oil by offering us plug-in cars that are fun and great to drive. The Washington Post goes to press just miles away from military hospitals full of soldiers who have born the brutal cost of our oil dependency. What motivates this criticism of American auto innovation when most Americans applaud GM’s decision to take a bold step on new technology? How fast was the initial adoption of the cell phone, the VCR, or the DVR? Who stands behind the very vocal minority so intent on betting against American ingenuity?

Some facts that were missing from the Post editorial:

  •  Plug-in electric vehicles are now selling at a pace faster than the initial sales for the Toyota Prius when it was first introduced;
  • Plug-in sales have tripled this year over last;
  •  Chevy Volt sales are up fourfold from last year;
  •  Owners of the new plug-in vehicles consistently rate them as the best in the market;
  •  The three leading cars – the LEAF, the Volt and the Mitsubishi i-MIEV – have each received multiple awards for quality and innovation.

Auto experts will tell you that car assembly lines regularly shut down to retool for production of various models. (The Post editorial cited the closing of a plant in Michigan as an outcome of waning Volt demand). The recent Volt plant ramp down was planned, a regular part of the manufacturing process, and not extraordinary. The false repeating of the cost of producing the Volt is simply poor journalism – designing and retooling is always expensive. The first car off any production line may look relatively expensive, but car companies plan for that by recovering their development costs over many years.

Plug-in vehicles are already reshaping the driving experience for tens of thousands of us, with millions more to follow. We invite The Washington Post to listen to today’s drivers directly. National Plug In Day …  is coming Sept. 23rd with simultaneous EV celebrations in over 60 cities. The D.C. ride-n-drive will be one of the day’s biggest. We invite the Post’s readers to come learn first-hand about this new day for America.

The response was signed by Chad Schwitters, Board President Plug In America; Ron Freund, President, Electric Auto Association and Gina Coplon-Newfield, Director of Green Fleets & Electric Vehicles Initiative Sierra Club.

To find out more about EVs or sign up for an event celebrating the new electric vehicles, go to: National Plug-In Day, Sunday, Sept. 23.

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