Op-ed: What the next governor can do to reduce oil dependence

Original Article

A REFINERY fire in California early in July pushed gasoline prices back into the $4 a gallon range. It shows again that we are hostage to oil prices.

Washington state imports all of the oil we use; we have no oil resources of our own to tap. According to the 2012 Washington State Energy Strategy, drivers in our state spent $16 billion in 2009 on gasoline, diesel and oil. Because oil has a virtual monopoly on transportation fuels, when gasoline prices go up, we have no choice but to pay up. High oil prices harm the state’s economy.

The next governor should start thinking about how to reduce our dependence on oil and accelerate the transition to smart, connected vehicles.

Fortunately, we are on the threshold of a new era of personal transportation of smart, connected, autonomous, electric and alternative-fuel vehicles.

Ford, General Motors, Nissan, Toyota, Mitsubishi, Tesla, Fisker, VIA Motors, and a dozen others are selling electric vehicles with more to come. Although initial prices are high, they are coming down, just as the cost of any new technology from cellphones to laptops.

Washington has one of the cleanest and cheapest electric-power-supply systems in the country. Electric-car owners here pay the electric-power equivalent of 75 cents a gallon. Replacing imported oil with electricity makes special sense in Washington.

GM reported that last year owners of the Chevy Volt collectively saved a supertanker full of gasoline. Jay Leno has driven his Volt 18,000 miles on 12 gallons of gas. Although below high expectations, electrical-vehicle sales are ahead of the curve compared to the initial sales of the hybrid Prius, which is now the third best-selling car in the world.

We can also make cars now that avoid accidents and reduce congestion. INRIX, Microsoft, VoiceBox and Airbiquity are working with Ford and others to make cars smarter, safer and greener. Cars are now on the road that avoid rear-end collisions, lane drift and can self-park.

We are moving from assisted driving to a future of even safer self-driving mobility. Google, GM and the U.S. military are testing fully autonomous vehicles, which could save thousands of lives.

Given these challenges and opportunities, what can the next governor do to help reduce our dependence on oil and accelerate the transition to smart, connected vehicles? Start with five steps:

  • Join with federal and neighboring state fleet managers to buy replacement fleet vehicles that plug into our clean state power grid — after performing a rigorous life-cycle cost analysis.
  • Remove regulatory roadblocks and ensure consistency in state policy, including regulatory reform that would give utilities flexibility to meet renewable-energy goals. For instance, the state could give utilities green-energy credits for encouraging use of electric vehicles.
  • Develop pilot congestion-relief projects, such as one in cooperation with Joint Base Lewis-McChord, to demonstrate how to connect commuters with advanced transportation options and to test communication standards for connected, increasingly autonomous vehicles.
  • Facilitate a system to enable commuters to reserve parking places at expanded high-tech park-and-ride lots, reserve seats on buses and create flexible ride-sharing programs to make bus systems more fuel-efficient. (King County’s diesel buses, for example, average only 44 miles per gallon per passenger — which is actually less efficient than a Prius with a single occupant).
  • Build on the partnership with West Coast states that launched the I-5 electric highway and work to create common standards, pool research results and develop joint economic-development opportunities.