Who killed the electric car? This time nobody is accusing General Motors
by Allen Best
General Motors was depicted as something less than heroic in the 2006 documentary film called “Who Killed the Electric Car.”
Howard A. “Hal” Lenox, the Western regional director of government affairs for General Motors, makes the case that whatever the accuracy of that depiction then, GM is now very much in the chase.
Fuel efficiency has already improved. Three years ago, just 16 percent of vehicles sold by GM achieved at least 30 mpg on highways. Today, it’s 40 percent.
After shelving its first electric car a decade ago, GM two years ago introduced the Chevy Volt, a plug-in hybrid. On a full electrical charge, it can go 38 miles. But it also has a gasoline backup.
A device installed in the cars of consenting owners allows GM to track fueling patterns. As of mid-November, Volt owners relied on batteries for two-thirds of their miles traveled and gasoline for a third. Many Volt owners average 900 miles between fill-ups of gasoline.
GM, like other automakers, has expanded its offerings. One electric offering is the Cadillac ELR. Lenox said he believes that GM offered the electric Cadillac to send the message that it is serious about vehicle electrification.
In January, GM will unveil its second-generation Volt. While GM has been sparing in details of what to expect and Lenox wasn’t any different, he did not deny bloggers’ conjectures of “surmising it will be a 200-mile car.”
That, of course, would put a Volt within striking distance of the 250 miles that the fully electric Tesla Model S can get on a battery charge. GM’s response, he said, is “we will see you and we will raise you.” While others have dismissed Tesla founder Elon Musk, “we believe he is somebody to be taken very seriously,” said Lenox. “He is pushing us to be better.”
GM is also pursuing other non-gasoline segments, including biofuels and hydrogen. Lenox described hydrogen as “great technology, very expensive, and no infrastructure.” California, with an incentive program, is attempting to overcome that lack of infrastructure. But GM has a $200 million research facility in Michigan and a partnership with Honda. Honda is determined to unveil a fuel-cell, i.e. hydrogen, vehicle next year.
Lenox was asked if there were one or two policies that all states should adopt, the low-hanging fruit of policy.
He responded with a laundry list: high-occupancy vehicle policies, dedicated places for parking of alternative-fuel vehicles, and, of course, charging infrastructure.
“But there really isn’t a silver bullet,” he said. States and markets are different, and the responses should be different, too.
What Colorado is doing
Colorado’s has a strategy of playing to its strengths in ways to address its most significant problems. Wes Maurer, transportation program manager for the Colorado Energy Office, pointed out that Colorado is a net importer of oil, despite the rapidly expanding production from the Niobrara formation.
Mauer said that light-duty natural-gas vehicles have 6 to 11 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions than gasoline. Replacing older diesels with natural gas-fueled vehicles can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 33 percent, nitrous oxides by 90 percent and volatile organic compounds by 43 percent.
Too, natural gas is cheap. In the Rocky Mountain region, it cost $1.61 per gallon equivalent in July 2013 as compared to $3.62 then for gasoline.
Colorado’s northern Front Range has a significant problem with lung-scarring ozone. The ground-level ozone has many causes, one of them automobile exhausts. Shifting vehicles from gasoline to natural gas and electricity will reduce the stew of toxins. This is especially true after two coal plants, in Denver and Boulder, are shifted from coal to natural gas during the next several years, according to research by the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project.
The Regional Air Quality Council, or RAQC, the leading air-quality planning agency for the nine-county northern Front Range, has a direct interest in expanding the fueling infrastructure for alternative vehicles.
RAQC, working in conjunction with state and federal agencies and Noble Energy, is devoting $52 million to create alternate-fueling infrastructure and alternate-fueling vehicles.
Steve McCannon, mobile sources program manager for RAQC, said on-road mobile sources caused 40 percent of nitrous oxide emissions in 2013.
Note: The story was amended to correct an error spotted by an observant reader that confused the Leaf and the Volt.