Commentary: The Price of Progress

by Carmel Roberts

September 23, 2010

Everybody wants cleaner burning cars and alternative fuels, but who's going to pay for it? And what will all this change mean for the future of the collector car hobby?

As everyone knows, there is a growing interest in moving the United States away from petroleum fuels for transportation and toward alternative fuels and advanced technologies. In fact, many long time observers of the auto industry feel that this growing trend is permanent and that we are witnessing a major paradigm shift away from the traditional combustion engine. Nowhere has the growing drum beat for alternative fuels, energy independence, and greater fuel efficiency been louder than in Washington, D.C.

When the 102nd Congress passed the Energy Policy Act of 1992 (EPAct), one of the major provisions required the purchase of alternative fuel vehicles by federal agencies and state governments. In addition, EPAct established a tax credit for the purchase of electric vehicles, as well as tax deductions for the purchase of alternative fuel and hybrid vehicles.

Other laws affecting alternative fuel and advanced technology vehicles include the Energy Policy and Conservation Act, which established fuel economy standards for passenger cars and light trucks. Also in the 90s came a number of amendments to the Clean Air Act, which now requires cities with significant air quality problems to promote low emission vehicles; highway authorization bills that established and reaffirmed tax incentives for ethanol and other fuels; and numerous laws that authorize federal research and development on alternative fuels, advanced technologies, and enabling infrastructure.

While a political push for cleaner burning fuels was arguably already happening, the BP Gulf Oil Spill has definitely solidified public interest in an even greater push to get there faster. And this has some people concerned.

New Era, Same Problems

One of the largest barriers to the development and wide scale production of an alternative vehicle is the same today as it was more than a hundred years ago when Detroit first dabbled in the production of electric vehicles—the price of production is quite high compared to the costs of manufacturing combustion engines.

In fact, according to a recent article in the Detroit News, the costs are proving so high that automakers are looking for private partners to help share the cost of developing the technology of the future.

The catch to this development is that there isn't a clear front runner technology that they can focus on with a high degree of certainty, so they're forced to either take a chance on a single technology or to diversify their efforts at a greater cost but potentially lower risk.

The last time the U.S. auto industry embarked on radical technological changes in a short time was in the 1970s and 1980s. Under pressure then from new regulations, as today, the result was a drop in vehicle quality that dogged Detroit automakers for years.

When pioneering new automotive technology, going cheap usually means the customer makes up the difference on the back end. Furthermore, while one of the supposed perks to driving alternative energy cars is that they're less expensive to operate the plain fact is that right now the technology to build one is anything but cheap. Consider the following:

  • A hydrogen-powered fuel cell SUV costs four times as much to build as a conventional SUV.
  • A transmission for a hybrid SUV costs three times more than a transmission for a regular SUV.
  • Batteries large enough to power cars without assistance from a gas engine cost from about $12,000 to as much as $50,000 for a performance car.
  • A hydrogen station costs upwards of $2 million to build.

Cue Political Tax Incentives

Ongoing developments pertaining to hybrid vehicles, fuel cells, and hydrogen fuel has raised key policy questions. These questions include whether more generous tax incentives for hybrid and fuel cell vehicles should be established; the costs associated with production of hydrogen as a major transportation fuel; and whether research and development funds should be focused on such potentially high-risk technologies as fuel cells or on near-term, conventional technologies, such as hybrids.

In light of these and other energy policy concerns, Congress has been working on comprehensive energy legislation since 2001. While many of these efforts have stalled at the committee level, President Obama has hinted at the fact that comprehensive energy legislation would be a high priority in the session immediately following the November General Elections.

With plug-ins like the Chevrolet Volt, the Nissan LEAF, and others coming to mass market in the next year with a recession still stubbornly lingering and with their high production and showroom cost, it would appear as though the automakers are convinced this is an unavoidable, significant, and permanent trend.

Regardless of the exact stimulus or response, for owners of historic vehicles this trend presents an interesting challenge. How do we strike the right balance between honoring this second age of invention and the future of the automobile while preserving the heritage, history, and infrastructure of all that came before it?

Comments

  1. Neny I'm looking to buy a car here and was doing the reacsreh. The Cost to Own of Hybrids was consistently more than similar (or same) model non-Hybrids. The only advantages Hybrids have is with the fuel costs over the life of the car, and the Hybrid tax credit. But, they're at a disadvantage with almost everything else. And, they're killed by the depreciation, due it seems to the high invoice price. (O.K. I think I just unintentionally made a really good argument for buying Hybrids Used.)But, just to compare the two cars I'm liking, the Honda Civic super-basic trim has a CtO of $24,200 and the Honda Civic Hybrid $26,900. And, the Civic Hybrid is actually way more affordable and closer to the CtO of its non-Hybrid sister model than the other Hybrids I've been looking at.Here's what I'm thinking. The projected Cost to Own is based on a few guesses, like how much mileage you're likely to have, and the price of gas pretty much staying where it is.Now I don't want to read doomsday predictions about how we're going to go all Mad Max. I don't. But, it's natural to suppose the trend of gas prices going up is going to continue.I mean the reason it happened in the first place is because people in developing countries have been buying cars, so the demand for gas has gone up. These countries aren't done developing. Or, to put it another way, there's alot of people in the world who haven't bought a car yet.Back to the Civic I figure with the differences in CtOs not including the cost of gas ($4,300), the cost of gas would pretty much have to double ($4,300/($8,600-$6,200)=~1.8). And, that's pretty much just for the Honda Civic. I'm having a real hard time imagining a horrible nightmare scenario where the Ford Fusion Hybrid New would be a better buy than the Ford Fusion New.I guess I've pretty much already answered my own question. But, I have another scenario for all of you. If someone starts mass producing Hydrogen Fuel Cell cars for mass sales, what's that going to do to the price of gas? I'd expect it to go down partly because the demand for gas would be stemmed somewhat, but mostly just because the gas companies would want to incentivise their consumers keeping combustion cars.I guess the big question there is, how likely is that to happen in the next 5 years? Or however long? Isn't it odd how these alternative cars have the potential to sabotage each other?And, how competitive is hydrogen with gas as a fuel? Obviously, there's the old issue that hydrogen would have to build their distribution from the ground up. But, once that's done, how much would a mile fueled by gas cost vs. a mile fueled by hydrogen?Gas comes out of the ground with it's energy already in it. Petroleum pumps try to be (and are) highly energy efficient. But, pumping a liquid out of minerals Well, isn't that like squeezing blood from a stone?Hydrogen you have to use up energy to electrolyze it or refine it from fossil fuels. I'm not bothered so much by the greenhouse implications. From an engineering standpoint it's an energy storage device. What's the cost? Electricity is cheap. Right?Then there's the comparative fuel economies of fuel cell and combustion cars. Hydrogen is more energy intensive than gas. A full tank is lighter. The lightening of the cars load would give it a slight advantage in fuel economy. Wouldn't it? (Get the image of hydrogen making balloon floaty cars out of your head please. It so doesn't work that way.) Also, since the internal drag is on a much shorter drive train, wouldn't that give Hydrogen Fuel Cell cars a tremendous advantage in fuel economy?So an swers, are you saying that if I asked these other questions separately you WOULD answer them? Besides I'm dubious of that on it's own, it kind of sounds like Y!A points farming to me, at a cost to me!Beyond that it's occurred to me you don't have to double the price of gas. For vocations that involve alot of driving you could easily more than double the mileage and the fuel consumption. Like I imagine Taxi companies, if they're not using Hybrids are pretty much losing money.From the National Hydrogen Association: The estimated costs for producing and delivering hydrogen to thefueling station using today’s technologies vary from $2.10/gallon of gasoline equivalent (gge) to $9.10/gge. These hydrogen costs do not include highway taxes and do include the increased fuel efficiency of fuel cell vehicles compared to gasoline-powered hybrid electric vehicles. So best case scenario hydrogen is just competitive with gas.An swers, sorry you did write that mileage can make a Hybrid worthwhile first. But, I still don't like the other thing you wrote, if only because that means flooding the latest question pages with spam questions. There's enough inane crap on here as it is.On the other side of things, saying hydrogen as a fuel isn't going to happen in a big way tomorrow is not the same as saying it's never going to happen. The price of gas will go up, not least of all because people consider it to be an essential consumable. People don't just use less simply because demand outstrips supply, so the price has to go way up to be prohibitive. Next we'd need to see a big drop in the price of electricity. Maybe when they mine the moon for tritium for fusion power, though the new fusion powerplants and the power infrastructure will still cost money on top of the price tag of a commercial lunar space program. I think the big energy conglomerates like GE can afford to do it easy. But I've never been a big fan of electric cars. I don't think the oil companies are trying to keep them buried because they threaten their monopoly. I just don't think they've ever really been any good. Granted tremendous advances in battery technology have given them a huge step forward. But, even with that and regenerative braking (an old technology which has gained new interest) electric cars' ranges just aren't very good. I know that sound like a strawman attack, like the old one that electric cars can't make it up hills. But, it's true. At the least, going on a roadtrip in an electric car is out of the question. It doesn't help there the batteries are pretty dang heavy. But again the weight is less important than internal drag on the drive train, as well as regenerative braking. (Batteries are also expensive, but not more so than engine blocks and full drive trains, and definitely not more than hydrogen tanks and fuel cells.)

    I'm looking to buy a car here and was doing the reacsreh. The Cost to Own of Hybrids was consistently more than similar (or same) model non-Hybrids. The only advantages Hybrids have is with the fuel costs over the life of the car, and the Hybrid tax credit. But, they're at a disadvantage with almost everything else. And, they're killed by the depreciation, due it seems to the high invoice price. (O.K. I think I just unintentionally made a really good argument for buying Hybrids Used.)But, just to compare the two cars I'm liking, the Honda Civic super-basic trim has a CtO of $24,200 and the Honda Civic Hybrid $26,900. And, the Civic Hybrid is actually way more affordable and closer to the CtO of its non-Hybrid sister model than the other Hybrids I've been looking at.Here's what I'm thinking. The projected Cost to Own is based on a few guesses, like how much mileage you're likely to have, and the price of gas pretty much staying where it is.Now I don't want to read doomsday predictions about how we're going to go all Mad Max. I don't. But, it's natural to suppose the trend of gas prices going up is going to continue.I mean the reason it happened in the first place is because people in developing countries have been buying cars, so the demand for gas has gone up. These countries aren't done developing. Or, to put it another way, there's alot of people in the world who haven't bought a car yet.Back to the Civic I figure with the differences in CtOs not including the cost of gas ($4,300), the cost of gas would pretty much have to double ($4,300/($8,600-$6,200)=~1.8). And, that's pretty much just for the Honda Civic. I'm having a real hard time imagining a horrible nightmare scenario where the Ford Fusion Hybrid New would be a better buy than the Ford Fusion New.I guess I've pretty much already answered my own question. But, I have another scenario for all of you. If someone starts mass producing Hydrogen Fuel Cell cars for mass sales, what's that going to do to the price of gas? I'd expect it to go down partly because the demand for gas would be stemmed somewhat, but mostly just because the gas companies would want to incentivise their consumers keeping combustion cars.I guess the big question there is, how likely is that to happen in the next 5 years? Or however long? Isn't it odd how these alternative cars have the potential to sabotage each other?And, how competitive is hydrogen with gas as a fuel? Obviously, there's the old issue that hydrogen would have to build their distribution from the ground up. But, once that's done, how much would a mile fueled by gas cost vs. a mile fueled by hydrogen?Gas comes out of the ground with it's energy already in it. Petroleum pumps try to be (and are) highly energy efficient. But, pumping a liquid out of minerals Well, isn't that like squeezing blood from a stone?Hydrogen you have to use up energy to electrolyze it or refine it from fossil fuels. I'm not bothered so much by the greenhouse implications. From an engineering standpoint it's an energy storage device. What's the cost? Electricity is cheap. Right?Then there's the comparative fuel economies of fuel cell and combustion cars. Hydrogen is more energy intensive than gas. A full tank is lighter. The lightening of the cars load would give it a slight advantage in fuel economy. Wouldn't it? (Get the image of hydrogen making balloon floaty cars out of your head please. It so doesn't work that way.) Also, since the internal drag is on a much shorter drive train, wouldn't that give Hydrogen Fuel Cell cars a tremendous advantage in fuel economy?So an swers, are you saying that if I asked these other questions separately you WOULD answer them? Besides I'm dubious of that on it's own, it kind of sounds like Y!A points farming to me, at a cost to me!Beyond that it's occurred to me you don't have to double the price of gas. For vocations that involve alot of driving you could easily more than double the mileage and the fuel consumption. Like I imagine Taxi companies, if they're not using Hybrids are pretty much losing money.From the National Hydrogen Association: The estimated costs for producing and delivering hydrogen to thefueling station using today’s technologies vary from $2.10/gallon of gasoline equivalent (gge) to $9.10/gge. These hydrogen costs do not include highway taxes and do include the increased fuel efficiency of fuel cell vehicles compared to gasoline-powered hybrid electric vehicles. So best case scenario hydrogen is just competitive with gas.An swers, sorry you did write that mileage can make a Hybrid worthwhile first. But, I still don't like the other thing you wrote, if only because that means flooding the latest question pages with spam questions. There's enough inane crap on here as it is.On the other side of things, saying hydrogen as a fuel isn't going to happen in a big way tomorrow is not the same as saying it's never going to happen. The price of gas will go up, not least of all because people consider it to be an essential consumable. People don't just use less simply because demand outstrips supply, so the price has to go way up to be prohibitive. Next we'd need to see a big drop in the price of electricity. Maybe when they mine the moon for tritium for fusion power, though the new fusion powerplants and the power infrastructure will still cost money on top of the price tag of a commercial lunar space program. I think the big energy conglomerates like GE can afford to do it easy. But I've never been a big fan of electric cars. I don't think the oil companies are trying to keep them buried because they threaten their monopoly. I just don't think they've ever really been any good. Granted tremendous advances in battery technology have given them a huge step forward. But, even with that and regenerative braking (an old technology which has gained new interest) electric cars' ranges just aren't very good. I know that sound like a strawman attack, like the old one that electric cars can't make it up hills. But, it's true. At the least, going on a roadtrip in an electric car is out of the question. It doesn't help there the batteries are pretty dang heavy. But again the weight is less important than internal drag on the drive train, as well as regenerative braking. (Batteries are also expensive, but not more so than engine blocks and full drive trains, and definitely not more than hydrogen tanks and fuel cells.)

  2. Maria Minds of Their Own: A Chemical Reaction that Changes, then Changes Back! When you burn a piece of wood, you start with wood and oxygen, and end up with ashes, corabn dioxide, and water vapor. At no time during the reaction does wood reappear, even momentarily, from the ashes. Most chemical reactions are like this; they move in one direction, from reactants (starting chemicals) to products. In this chemistry science project, you will experiment with a rare and exotic reaction that oscillates. The reaction products appear and disappear for a number of cycles. Because the products are colored, the solution appears alternately blue, then yellow, then clear. The reaction is easy to set up, fun to watch, and opens up lots of ways to explore the nature of chemical reactions. Although it would be helpful if you have had a class in chemistry, you can still do this science project even if you have not. Salt Bridge Over Electrified Waters: How Electricity Changes pH You have probably heard the saying that water and electricity don't mix. Well, in this chemistry science fair project you will mix them, to create two solutions, one basic and one acidic. The apparatus is very simple, but the chemistry is complex and offers many avenues for exploration.Water to Fuel to Water: The Fuel Cycle of the Future Solar cells are popping up on rooftops everywhere these days and are a model for clean, renewable energy. Did you ever look at those solar panels and wonder how we can get electricity produced by solar cells when the sun is not shining? It is a great question because solar panels do not produce electricity when it is dark outside. One strategy to overcome this challenge is to store the energy produced by solar cells during the day in the form of a fuel that can be used at a later time. In this project, you will explore a cutting-edge method for storing renewable energy by breaking up water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen. The hydrogen and oxygen are fuels that can be burned in devices such as fuel cells to produce clean electricity when it is darkElectrolyte Challenge: Orange Juice vs. Sports Drink The makers of sports drinks spend millions of dollars advertising the benefits of their products. One of these featured benefits is often electrolytes, which your body loses as you sweat. In this chemistry science fair project, you will compare the electrolytes present in a sports drink with those in orange juice to find out which drink has more to replace the ones you lose as you're working out or playing sports. When you are finished, you might even want to make your own sports drink! Read more Saturated Solutions: Measuring Solubility Many essential chemical reactions and natural biochemical processes occur in liquid solutions, so understanding the chemical properties of liquid solutions is fundamentally important. This project asks the basic question, how much of a substance can dissolve in water, for three different substances: ordinary table salt, Epsom salts, and sugar

    Minds of Their Own: A Chemical Reaction that Changes, then Changes Back! When you burn a piece of wood, you start with wood and oxygen, and end up with ashes, corabn dioxide, and water vapor. At no time during the reaction does wood reappear, even momentarily, from the ashes. Most chemical reactions are like this; they move in one direction, from reactants (starting chemicals) to products. In this chemistry science project, you will experiment with a rare and exotic reaction that oscillates. The reaction products appear and disappear for a number of cycles. Because the products are colored, the solution appears alternately blue, then yellow, then clear. The reaction is easy to set up, fun to watch, and opens up lots of ways to explore the nature of chemical reactions. Although it would be helpful if you have had a class in chemistry, you can still do this science project even if you have not. Salt Bridge Over Electrified Waters: How Electricity Changes pH You have probably heard the saying that water and electricity don't mix. Well, in this chemistry science fair project you will mix them, to create two solutions, one basic and one acidic. The apparatus is very simple, but the chemistry is complex and offers many avenues for exploration.Water to Fuel to Water: The Fuel Cycle of the Future Solar cells are popping up on rooftops everywhere these days and are a model for clean, renewable energy. Did you ever look at those solar panels and wonder how we can get electricity produced by solar cells when the sun is not shining? It is a great question because solar panels do not produce electricity when it is dark outside. One strategy to overcome this challenge is to store the energy produced by solar cells during the day in the form of a fuel that can be used at a later time. In this project, you will explore a cutting-edge method for storing renewable energy by breaking up water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen. The hydrogen and oxygen are fuels that can be burned in devices such as fuel cells to produce clean electricity when it is darkElectrolyte Challenge: Orange Juice vs. Sports Drink The makers of sports drinks spend millions of dollars advertising the benefits of their products. One of these featured benefits is often electrolytes, which your body loses as you sweat. In this chemistry science fair project, you will compare the electrolytes present in a sports drink with those in orange juice to find out which drink has more to replace the ones you lose as you're working out or playing sports. When you are finished, you might even want to make your own sports drink! Read more Saturated Solutions: Measuring Solubility Many essential chemical reactions and natural biochemical processes occur in liquid solutions, so understanding the chemical properties of liquid solutions is fundamentally important. This project asks the basic question, how much of a substance can dissolve in water, for three different substances: ordinary table salt, Epsom salts, and sugar

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