Rev up the auto industry

Fisker Karma Plug-in Hybrid Sedan

Detroit 2008: Fisker Karma Plug-in Hybrid Sedan

Dear PJ,

I hope you didn’t think I was trying to get your goat in re: Obama and the auto industry. Being a banker and financial wizard, I somehow suspect your sympathies lay with McCain — for whom I have a lot of respect — but I strongly feel as though his fatalism regarding our auto industry was precisely the wrong tack to take.

Because our entire economy runs on wheels, as it were. Perhaps more importantly, our cars are a great source of pride to Americans and to simply give up in the face of foreign competition seems a singularly un-American, dispiriting prospect.

On the other hand, reviving the industry and going on to lead the world with cool, clean-running cars — that is something millions of us could get on board with and could go a long way toward providing the kind of leadership and momentum we clearly crave at this uncertain hour.

Anyway, those are my considered thoughts on the issue, for what they’re worth.

From today’s WP :

A Friend in Need

Mr. Obama needs to show the auto industry some tough love in helping it weather its troubles.

BARACK OBAMA made clear yesterday that the American automobile industry will have a friend in theWhite House starting Jan. 20. At his first post-election news conference, Mr. Obama, who had supported more federal aid for Detroit during the campaign, echoed talking points the industry has been using to seek more aid from Congress. He described carmaking as “the backbone of American manufacturing,” and noted that its current “hardship” extends to “countless suppliers, small businesses and communities throughout our nation who depend on a vibrant American auto industry.” Mr . Obama wants his aides to come up with new ideas “to help the auto industry adjust, weather the financial crisis, and succeed in producing fuel-efficient cars here in the United States.”

Hemorrhaging cash, Detroit wants an acceleration of an already approved $25 billion government loan to retool for greater fuel efficiency, plus $25 billion more to help the automakers ride out the financial crisis. This would, indeed, be a bad time for a sudden shutdown of the industry; including related businesses, that could eliminate hundreds of thousands of jobs, with tragic effects for communities across the Midwest. Still, the industry is no longer quite as pivotal to the American economy as it once was; and many other businesses are also hurting, including many whose workers make less than Detroit’s unionized workforce. Even with a bailout, U.S. carmakers will have to shed workers by the thousands. As for improving the fuel efficiency of the U.S.-made fleet, the best way to do that would be to permanently raise federal gas taxes. Alas, higher gas taxes seem to be politically impossible at the moment.

Hybrid Drivers

Race for Fuel Efficiency

Evan Hirsche averages 43 mpg with his Prius, while Katie Sebastian, shown with her son, Cole, averages 41 mpg. The drivers have friendly rivalry over their mpg scores, fueled by the Prius hybrid's real-time mileage readings.

Evan Hirsche averages 43 mpg with his Prius, while Katie Sebastian, shown with her son, Cole, averages 41 mpg. The drivers have friendly rivalry over their mpg scores, fueled by the Prius hybrid’s real-time mileage readings. (By Kevin Clark — The Washington Post)

Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 26, 2008

Katie Sebastian accuses her friend Evan Hirsche of getting better mileage than she does because he lives in Bethesda and has flatter everyday trips than she encounters in hilly Takoma Park. She suspects the Hirsche family of taking frequent long drives out of town, which also helps them.

“They claim they haven’t been out of town in a while,” she said, “but I know they have.”

Hirsche retorts: “It is well known that Katie is a lead-footer.”

Their friendly rivalry stems from the Prius effect. Both drive a Prius, the Toyota hybrid with an elaborate dashboard monitor that constantly informs drivers how many miles per gallon they are getting and whether the engine is running on battery or gasoline power. That can change driving in startling ways, making drivers conscious of their driving habits, then adjusting them to compete for better mileage. (Sebastian has 41 mpg, Hirsche 43.)

The Prius, and other hybrids with similar displays, has triggered on-the-spot learning that has the potential to change energy-consumption habits. The implications go far beyond the family car, with new devices for the home offering ways to encourage significant change in energy use.

“Once you start making fuel consumption more visible, you have something that comes to the forefront of people’s minds instead of lurking in the background,” said Sarah Darby, a researcher who studies energy feedback technologies at the University of Oxford‘s Environmental Change Institute. The monitors “show the consequences of your actions,” she says. “This gives you feedback that alters actions, and encourages you to try and improve things.”