Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Big 3 Look to Federal Loans to Help Refine, Not Reinvent Plug-in Cars

By Barbara McClellan

Commentary: The past is nothing if not a signpost to the future, as history has proven.

So, as the 2008 U.S. presidential election draws near, it’s a good time to remind the candidates, and their respective political parties, that plug-in electric and other fuel-efficient technologies the Detroit auto makers are racing to develop are not a recent phenomenon.

While nearly every global auto maker is hurrying to get such vehicles to market, General Motors hopes to have the first high-volume entry with its Chevy Volt extended-range electric vehicle.

American auto makers long have been in the forefront of powertrain innovations that often are credited to foreign competitors. What’s changed is the substantial capital investment required by the industry to retool plants and accelerate research in order to meet fuel-efficiency targets set by Congress in last year’s Energy Act.

Federal loans are needed to keep the Detroit Three competitive in putting cleaner vehicles on the road at affordable prices in this era of technical revolution, not to bail them out from their perceived misdirection in producing large trucks and SUVs to meet customer demand.

Indeed, the Motor City was well ahead of its time 100 years ago when the Anderson Electric Car Co. began producing cars in Detroit powered by a rechargeable lead-acid battery. For $600 more, an Edison nickel-iron version was available.

Anderson Electric Car

Detroit Electric-brand cars were said to be capable of traveling 80 miles (130 km) per charge, with a top speed of 20 mph (32 km/h), considered sufficient for the times.

Doctors needed a car they could depend on, as gasoline engines at the time were not easy to start, nor reliable. And because hand-cranking gas engines required lots of muscle, the electric cars also were popular with women, Detroit says on its website.

Ironically, this contributed to the electric car’s downfall, as it soon became thought of as a woman’s vehicle and men did not want to be seen driving one. To try to overcome this aversion, some models in later years were designed with a faux radiator grill.

Kettering Electric Self-Starter

Another factor in the EV’s demise was the invention of the first working electric starter in 1911 by Charles F. Kettering, of Dayton Electric Laboratories, initially used by Cadillac in 1912.

Additionally, battery-powered cars were expensive. The asking price for a Detroit Electric car in 1914 was about $2,650, compared with $600 for a Ford Model T, the website says.

Anderson Electric changed its name to The Detroit Electric Car. Co. in 1920, but filed for bankruptcy after the stock-market crash in 1929. A buyer kept the company alive by building cars to order, with the last delivered in 1939.

Meanwhile, Thomas Edison and Henry Ford decided to work together to make the electric car the main form of transportation in the U.S. Their vision was to have an infrastructure of charging stations available to the public. But the grand plan never came to fruition as gasoline became a plentiful and cheap alternative.

History repeats itself as the industry once again finds its focus on electric vehicles, only this time with ultra-clean models that have much longer driving ranges than the failed EVs of the past.

The next U.S. president needs to understand American auto makers don’t need loans to reinvent the wheel; they just want to make it better.

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