Wash. Post Pulls Rug From Under New Electric Cars

Toyota RAV4 EVJust as mainstream automakers are beginning to launch electric vehicle (EV) technology, The Washington Post is calling for an end to federal tax credits encouraging consumers to purchase electric cars. The Post's editorial coincides with a Republican proposal (not mentioned in the editorial) to repeal the tax credits, which date back to the latter years of the George W. Bush administration. Continuing what has become a pattern in the paper's energy coverage, the Post presents a selective and short-sighted version of the facts.

Take, for instance, the argument that “only upper-income consumers can afford to buy an electric vehicle.” In a highly misleading move, the Post provides the price of only one EV option, the luxury $100,000 Fisker Karma. By contrast, the after-credit cost of a Nissan Leaf is $27,700. A CNNMoney guide to the “remarkable assortment” of plug-in cars coming online in 2012 quotes prices starting “from $22,000.” Beyond the sticker price, EVs have lower operating costs and represent the only option most families have for really shielding their financial security from perennial spikes in the price of gasoline.

The Post goes on to argue that the electric car industry is “not ready for prime time,” saying “sales of electric vehicles were disappointing in 2011.” Chelsea Sexton, an electric car advocate who has advised GM, said via email that 2011 sales of electric cars have for the most part “been limited by production, not demand.” “Even so, 2011 [EV] sales were nearly double first year (2000) hybrid sales,” Sexton added.

The editorial makes no note of the economic factors suppressing consumer demand for many goods and services. Nor does it recognize that lawmakers supported electric cars because they are not already a well-established technology, not in spite of that fact. The federal government has long played an important role in supporting innovations that later became “the technologies we take for granted,” in the words of the Breakthrough Institute. The Post editorial declares that “conventional hybrids” show “much more promise” than electric cars, without mentioning that those hybrids were boosted by federal tax credits from 2005-2010.

The Post also frets about the “taxpayers' commitment” to the EV industry, but some perspective is in order. Auto writer Nick Chambers estimates that up to 19,000 EVs were sold in 2011 and if the full $7,500 credit was applied to every sale, it cost us about $142 million in lost revenue. That's about .000039 percent of federal spending last year. It's 7 times less costly than the “percentage depletion allowance,” one of many tax breaks bestowed upon the oil industry, which continues to report enormous profits.

The government has subsidized fossil fuels for decades, not least by building an entire national infrastructure catering to vehicles powered by petroleum. On top of all that, the price of oil fails to account for its actual costs, including threats to public health from pollution, damages to the environment and the economy from spills, the effects of climate change, etc. So to argue against federal support for EVs because they struggle to compete in a system designed for cheap fossil fuels seems to be exactly backwards.

Finally, the editorial argues that EVs “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.” But global warming and U.S. oil dependence aren't going away anytime soon. Energy policy should look beyond the “near future” -- that's kind of the whole point. Importantly, this debate is not just about cars, but also the prospects for a robust advanced battery manufacturing industry in the United States. “The U.S. battery industry will grow only as fast as the hybrid and electric vehicle market,” according to the Congressional Research Service.

There's no question about the superior efficiency of electric motors over combustion engines, and their significantly lower greenhouse gas emissions. But it remains to be seen if the adoption of EVs will be widespread. Michael Omotoso, senior analyst at LMC Automotive, has compared the EV industry to “a baby taking its first steps,” saying “the market is in its infancy” and “will stumble and fall several times before finally learning how to walk.” Pike Research reports that “The early market for electric vehicles is proving that demand for the vehicles exists across the globe. The combination of consumer purchase incentives, rising fossil fuel costs, and exciting new vehicle models is fueling a strong early adopter market.”

The Washington Post, along with ideological media commentators who delight in rooting against advanced vehicle technology, should make their coverage thoughtful and accurate, for infant industries are not immune to negligent media narratives and the stakes are ultimately quite high.

Jill Fitzsimmons contributed to this post.

UPDATE: Autoblog points out that the editorial also “grossly distorts the truth about problems with the Volt.” The Post said that “the Volt brand is suffering from news that some of its batteries burst into flames after government road tests.” In fact, the fires occurred after crash tests.