Alan Mulally, Ford’s new CEO, helped lead Boeing into a new world of carbon-fiber, fuel-efficient technology with the 787 Dreamliner. In an intensely competitive global marketplace, Boeing is back on top again in sales over Airbus, which is struggling to catch up with Boeing’s fuel-efficient technologies.
Mulally now faces a similar global fuel-efficiency race in the even more competitive auto industry, where major manufacturers are predicting that they will soon make hybrid cars that will get more than 100 miles per gallon. One manufacturer predicts that average commuters might never have to fill up their gas tanks again.
This time, the competitor to beat is Toyota. Last July, it announced plans to make a plug-in version of its gas-electric hybrid cars, such as the Prius. The plug-in hybrid would be able to recharge its larger batteries from a regular electric outlet. Toyota claims the car would be able to “travel greater distances without using its gas engine, it will conserve more oil and slice smog and greenhouse gases to nearly imperceptible levels.”
A few days ago, General Motors announced its Chevy Volt plug-in hybrid electric car, which can be driven up to 40 miles on batteries alone and recharge itself with an onboard gas generator or by plugging into a standard electric outlet. Robert Lutz, GM’s vice chairman for product development, estimated that for 78 percent of commuters in the United States whose daily trip to work is 40 miles or less, the Chevy Volt would make the commute using only the battery “without burning a drop of petroleum.”
But Detroit says it faces a serious problem. GM, Ford and DaimlerChrysler recently told the White House that the U.S. is falling behind Japan and Toyota in battery development needed to power the stunningly fuel-efficient plug-in hybrids. The so-called Big Three automakers implied that they could lose the global race without government help on new battery technology.
Toyota made billions last year from strong sales and profits, and has the financial muscle to do what it takes to refine the high-powered lightweight batteries to power the new generation of plug-in hybrids. But Ford and GM lost billions last year. Although DaimlerChrysler made a profit, its Chrysler operations lost $1.5 billion last year. This fall, Ford mortgaged almost all of its U.S. assets to raise $18 billion to stay in the game.
Enter Mulally, who took over at Ford just four months ago. He knows that Boeing bet the company on the jet age in the 1950s with the 707 (powered by a civilian version of the military J57 jet engine and with initial Air Force purchases of the 707’s KC-135 variation) and then dominated the commercial-jet aircraft market for decades. He also knows that Boeing made another key bet on the 787 when it developed and used cutting-edge fuel-efficient technologies, including lightweight and stronger carbon-fiber materials.
Back to Detroit’s question: Isn’t it appropriate for the federal government to help with a technology that would dramatically reduce our dependence on foreign oil, strengthen national energy security and reduce greenhouse-gas emissions? If the Department of Defense helped design and fund the interstate highway system and the Internet, shouldn’t working to end our addiction to oil be at least an equally compelling national priority?
A partial answer is that the federal government is already funding some advanced battery research and is researching the benefits of plug-in hybrid vehicles. Last month, the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland evaluated the impact of plug-in hybrid electric vehicles on foreign oil imports, the environment, electric utilities and the consumer. If recharging were limited to night and other “off peak” times, the study estimated significant savings for the economy and a potential for lowering greenhouse gases substantially. The study said idle capacity of the electric power grid “is an underutilized national asset that could be tapped to vastly reduce our dependence on foreign oil.”
The remaining question is whether the federal government will do all it responsibly can to accelerate the day when flexible-fuel, plug-in, electric hybrid vehicles roll off assembly lines in the United States. Will President Bush offer a specific plan of action tonight in his State of the Union address, and will Congress work with the administration to make it happen?
We may know soon if there is a bipartisan road map to help end our addiction to oil in transportation, which will strengthen national security, help the economy and improve the environment.
Steve Marshall is chairman of the Municipal League of King County. Bruce Agnew is director of the Discovery Institute’s Cascadia Center, which is working on regional transportation solutions. Experts and policy-makers will discuss the role of government and other questions related to replacing foreign oil with domestic fuel and electric power in transportation at a May 7 Cascadia conference at the Microsoft Conference Center in Redmond.