Saturday, May 15, 2004

Help the War: Buy Hybrid Vehicles

It has been estimated that 96% (!) of all U.S. oil consumption ends up as automobile tailpipe emissions.

Today's automobiles are still notoriously inefficiently --- even a 5%, 10%, or 20% increase in engine efficiency would cut oil imports by an equivalent amount.

This would also conserve Earth's limited oil reserves and reduce global warming. Even the Pentagon now admits the violent storms created by global warming are likely to be politically destabilizing as well as pose an unpredictable hazard to combat troops.

Most immediately, however, this would cut surging gas prices and reduce the oil money to the Middle East that is funding terrorism.

Yet the Bush Administration early on decided to kill billions in federal research funding that the automobile industry was using to develop more fuel efficient engines. Instead, the Bush Administration bally-hooed fuel cells, which are still decades away.

Fuel cells run on hydrogen. Hydrogen can be generated from water, but that process is expensive and requires lots of energy. Alternatively, hydrogen can be made from fossil fuels. Existing (but expensive) technology allows conversion of fossil fuels into hydrogen and solid carbon. The hydrogen, in turn, is effectively "burnt" by the fuel cell, producing energy for locomotion and water pure enough to drink. The solid carbon can eventually be disposed of and buried. This eliminates "greenhouse emissions" (hopefully), although leaking hydrogen is thought to potentially pose a future pollution threat --- more study is needed. In any event, all this is still years away, requiring enormous infrastructure changes (how many mechanics do you know that can repair a fuel cell car)? It still doesn't work, costs a fortune, and still requires you to tank up with fossil fuels.

But we have a technology that's here today called "hybrid vehicles" that use an electric motor and generator, in conjunction with a traditional engine, to dramatically improve fuel efficiency. All sorts of tricks are used: energy that used be lost as heat when breaking gets converted into electricity to drive the electric motor. Typically fuel efficiencies are 70 mpg street/50 mpg highway, making hybrid vehicles ideal for city driving.

The technology is here today, and quite affordable and practical. Anyone can walk into a Toyota or Honda dealer and buy a hybrid vehicle. Ford and GM have reportedly licensed the technology and intend to come out with their own hybrid vehicle designs shortly. Ford is even talking about a hybrid SUV.

Given the national urgency of the war on terror, expected to last 30 years according to a high-ranking US military officer, we might want to start thinking about public policies to encourage customers to buy the affordable, existing technology.

Currently, some tax incentives are offered to encourage customers to purchase hybrid vehicles. But the Bush Administration has reportedly done some strange things as well, including tax rebates for customers that purchase the dreaded Hummer. (The latter was designed for the US Army and features a vertical windshield to prevent headlights from reflecting off the dashboard and giving away the Army's position to the enemy. Rivets allow the Hummer to dropped from a helicopter. Fuel efficiency was not a design criterion, and as the least efficient vehicle on the road today, this gas guzzler is the bin Laden dream machine.)

In Europe such policies already exist. In addition to sky-high gasoline taxes and multi-thousand dollar fees to obtain driving licenses, some European countries impose a flat tax each year on gas-guzzlers based on fuel efficiency (or, equivalently, engine CC's).

As a result, most Europeans drive stick-shifts to keep down fuel costs and reduce their annual gas-guzzler taxes. You won't see many Hummers in Europe, as few can afford to pay the equivalent of many thousands of dollars each year in extra gas-guzzler engine taxes.

I can't recommend higher gasoline taxes, which would surely lead to inflation throughout the economy. But charging consumers an annual gradated "gas guzzler" tax would surely encourage development and production of more vehicles like Ford's proposed hybrid SUV.

Consumers that feel they absolutely must drive a gas-guzzling gift to terrorism like the Hummer would at least be paying added taxes to help the war on terrorism.