Why Gingrich And GOP Bash Electric Vehicles

Op-Ed: An applause line for campaign stops is hurting a legitimate move to alternative energy for vehicles

Republicans vying for the White House and members of Congress looking to appeal to part of their "base" constituents enjoy ridiculing the extended range electric Chevrolet Volt, as well as other electric vehicles they don't see as viable, attractive to drive or even manly.

Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, addressing Georgia and Oklahoma Republicans this week singled out the Volt, saying: "You can't put a gun rack in a Volt." The line drew cheers. "We believe in the right to bear arms and we like to bear the arms in our trucks." The full context of Gingrich's screed was a general opposition to the Obama White House's support of investments in alternative energy and what the presidential candidate sees as the President's inaction to stem rising gasoline prices.

General Motors public relations chief Selim Bingol responded: "Newt Gingrich has taken up saying that 'You can't put a gun rack on a Volt.' That's like saying 'You can't put training wheels on a Harley.' Actually, you can. But the real question is 'Why would you?' In both examples: It looks weird. It doesn't work very well, and, there are better places for gun racks and training wheels - pickup trucks and little Schwinns, respectively." Bingol added: "Seriously, when is the last time you saw a gun rack in ANY sedan?"

The Volt has been a favorite target of Republicans over the past several months. Republicans have opposed federal tax credits for electric vehicles. The Volt is eligible for a credit up to $7,500 and the White House is proposing raising it to $10,000 for all EVs.

Republicans have also tied the Volt to the White House's decision to bail out GM with taxpayer funds in 2009 with a larger agenda of pushing electric vehicles. Radio-talk-show host Rush Limbaugh, who aligns himself with Republicans, has frequently ridiculed the government's efforts to promote the sale of electric and extended-range electric vehicles like the Volt and Nissan Leaf. Limbaugh also was among the throng charging that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration mishandled an incident of a fire in a Volt after an accident as a way, alleging pressure from the White House, to shield the car from bad publicity.

Bashing these cars has been an applause line on the Republican campaign trail.

This is unfortunate. A shift toward diversifying the U.S. car fleet away from vehicles that rely on only gasoline to ones that draw on multiple sources of fuel, including natural gas and electricity, will decrease the country's reliance on foreign oil, as well as free consumers from the stranglehold oil companies have over the cost of driving.

The best part of a growing electric fleet of cars for consumers is that utility companies will increasingly become a competitor to oil companies when it comes to pricing per-mile driven.

As gas prices climb back toward $4 per gallon nationally, amid forecasts that $5 per gallon could be a reality in most parts of the country by late spring or early summer, a broader fleet of natural gas and electric vehicles in the U.S. would provide relief. Electric rates and natural gas prices are well below that of gasoline. Prices for electricity and natural gas, too, aren't affected by increased demand for oil in China and Europe, nor strife in the Middle East. They are affected by supply and demand.

A Chevy Volt today costs in excess of $40,000, around $10,000 more than an Audi A3. Some compare the Volt to the Chevy Cruze, which would make the Volt around $20,000 more expensive. But I think the Volt is more aptly compared with the Audi and Volvo S40 sedan because of the premium features and technology found in the car. The federal tax credit brings the Volt's final price pretty close to those vehicles.

The high cost of the Volt, as well as the fully electric Nissan Leaf, is due to the cost of the lithium-ion batteries in the vehicles' drive-train. The costs of the batteries alone is said to be around $10,000.

Conservative writer George Will called the Volt a failure on arrival because the federal government had to "bribe" people to buy them. But it is not unusual for high tech to be expensive in the beginning of consumer sales. The Japanese government, for example, indirectly subsidized the Toyota Prius in the beginning. As more of the vehicles are sold, and manufacturing scale broadens, the price of new tech comes down.

Governments all over the world routinely sponsor and support new transportation technology in cars, trains, buses to advance a change the government deems in the nation's and society's best interest.

But there is no question that electric vehicles, even ones like the Volt that run on both gas and electric power and spare the driver from worry over running out of juice, will continue to face an uphill battle with U.S. consumers, who have historically exhibited a preference for big horsepower and large SUVs.

Singling the cars out for being weak, unmanly, or illegitimate on the campaign trail to appeal to prejudices of those who have never driven the new electric vehicles, or cling to larger, more gas-thirsty cars and SUVs as a matter of personal preference, vanity or social currency, however, seems like a pretty cheap way to debate an important issue.


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