Of Corvettes And Green Electrons

 I'm flying home from the Good Jobs, Green Jobs conference in D.C., enjoying having a row of three seats to myself.  Yes, a person who is 6-4 can nap successfully athwart three airline seats, at least until the flight attendant whacks me after the seat belt sign goes on. 

This morning's workshop topic, featuring NRDC's Deron Lovaas in a repeat performance, was on "Reinventing The Auto Industry."  Everyone who reads the papers knows that the domestic and foreign auto industries are bleeding money; January new car sales were down 40% over last year for the Big Three, and slightly less than that for Toyota and Honda.  Annualized, January's rate yields less than 10 million new cars sold in the U.S. this year, a shockingly low figure - a figure that suggests that fleet turnover in favor of plug-in hybrid or electric cars will take even longer than people had thought. 

Brad Marshall of the UAW opened the workshop.  He did not find a receptive audience.  After reminding us that the U.S. auto industry had lost 43% of its workforce since 2000 - a whopping 576,000 jobs -- Brad opined that the light duty vehicle segment of the industry was being asked to contribute more than its fair share of greenhouse gas emissions.  He said that regulators should "find another sector to get reductions out of."  Well, Brad, my money as a taxpayer is going to subsidize GM and Chrysler, and as part-owner of those businesses now, I think things need to change, and fast.  $2 gas isn't going to last forever, and when it's at $4 or more again (Ingrid Matthaus-Maier said at yesterday's workshop that she pays $8 per gallon in Germany), the Big 3 need to be ready. 

Deron followed Brad and talked about the three-legged stool of transportation CO2 reduction:  vehicles, fuels and VMT, and the fourth "leg" of system efficiency such as reducing congestion.  He is bullish on plug-in hybrids and noted that, if the grid is cleaned up to minimize the use of coal-fired generation, 600 million metric tons of CO2 per year can be eliminated.  Deron reminded us that there will be an energy bill this year, along with the stimulus bill, the transportation re-authorization and a global warming bill.  The opportunities for progressive change are enormous. 

Charles Griffith from the Ecology Center in Michigan followed Deron and described the importance of keeping the $25 billion already authorized for retooling loans for U.S. automakers intact, and of using those funds in existing facilities and communities that have been hard hit by the tsunami of job losses.  He, like other speakers, wants the new green jobs to be American jobs, and doesn't want to see, for example, batteries and transmissions for hybrid-electric cars made overseas, as they are now.  For example, Chevy is importing the lithium-ion battery packs for its new extended-range electric car, the Volt, from Korea and assembling them in Michigan.  The gasoline engines that kick in to recharge the Volt batteries will come from Austria.  Ford may be bringing an all-electric car to market in 2011 with battery packs built in Canada.  Chrysler is out to lunch.  

Brad then took some more heat during the question period.  He is clearly very sensitive to the (common) idea that the Big 3 build lousy cars and that's why their sales have dropped off a cliff.  In fact, as I noted above, sales of Toyotas and Hondas are also way down.  Brad did admit that the Big 3 took their eyes off the ball regarding mid-side sedans years ago, allowing the Japanese carmakers to take a huge chunk of the market share.  He touted the new Chevy Malibu as the equivalent of an Accord or Camry, but having recently driven one, I disagree; I think it is approaching where the Japanese sedans were 10 years ago.  

Brad's larger point was that the Big 3 have been losing market share steadily for 30 years and are continuing to lose it.  In his view, their cars' poor fuel efficiency was the last straw when gas prices shot up last summer.  

The fact on the ground is that the U.S. government is now socializing the domestic auto industry.  Cars that are frills for a few, like the Corvettes I worshipped as a kid, may not have a purpose now that we, the taxpayers, are, or should be, calling the shots.  As Deron pointed out, now is exactly the time to invest heavily in hybrid and all-electric technology before gas prices spike again.  Let's hope Congress is traveling down that same road.