By Dan Neil
GAS PUMP HANDLES. Is there anything more cootie-fied? Apparently not, says paper products giant Kimberly-Clark, which in 2011 studied the filthiest surfaces people touch on the way to work and found gas pump handles to be the No. 1 grottiest. Other contenders included mailbox handles, escalator rails and ATM buttons.
I’ve spent a life around cars and, as far as I can tell, until the coronavirus, it never occurred to anyone to wipe down a gas pump handle. To the extent that such practices outlast the current crisis, it’s possible to hope other infectious diseases traveling the gas-station vector will be curtailed. That would be good.
Last month, as the nation took its collective foot off the gas, skies cleared.
Coronavirus has taught us a few things about transportation. We’ve had a glimpse of an economy where our corporeal presence is in many affairs optional—a 21st-century version of the wartime public reminder, “Is this trip really necessary?” Especially for younger wage-earners and students, struggling with the costs of mobility, that might be a win. After years hiding behind state franchise rules in an effort to fend off Tesla, auto makers and retailers are now learning to love online sales.
Most of us have taken crash courses in tele-work, tele-school or even tested the limits of tele-medicine, in lieu of the daily grind. When this is over I bet a lot of people will find it hard to put on pants again. Now if only the sky would stay blue.
Passenger-vehicle traffic volume was down 30% nationwide on March 20, compared with the month before, according to the transportation research firm INRIX. Air quality improved markedly—as in, visibly—over U.S. cities. The week of March 22, emissions and carbon-monoxide over New York City dropped more than 50% below typical levels, according to researchers at Columbia University. In Southern California, levels of particulate matter dropped 40% between March 16 and April 6, according to UCLA’s Fielding School of Public Health.
Take a look at that sky, wilya? We can get that back. With a national stimulus program embracing transportation electrification funded by a gas tax.
This is where some of you dismiss me as a loon. Yeah, no. I am a pro-business, for-profit capitalist, almost innately centrist; and compared with the protectionists and market manipulators in D.C., I’m Milton frickin’ Friedman.
What I am not is blinded by my age, my jingoism, my favorite cable-TV FUD-Rucker, or my comfort with the familiar, pining for the days of four-barrel carburetors. Fact: Most world governments, representing most of humanity and regulating about 85% of the global light-vehicle market, have committed to banning internal combustion-powered (IC) vehicles within 20 years, in favor of widespread vehicle electrification. Ask any CEO or board chairman of any car company. And it isn’t because the Otto cycle is evil but that, in concentrations typical of 21st-century megacities, its combustion products make people sick and die.
While greenhouse-gas emissions get most of the attention, our recently bluer skies reminds of the other reason, the older reason, we regulate tailpipe emissions: hydrocarbons, diesel particulate matter, smog-forming nitrogen-oxide (NOx), carbon monoxide, benzene and volatile organic compounds. Outdoor air pollution is estimated to have caused 4.2 million premature deaths in 2016, according to the World Health Organization.
In China, the world’s largest car market, urbanites have been wearing masks for a long time. Electrification has risen to an urgent national priority because, to the State Council, megacity air quality represents not just a threat to public health but to civil order.
EV skeptics will sometimes argue that charging cars with grid electricity merely moves the pollution somewhere else, aka, the long tailpipe argument. Yes, but location matters, particularly for megacities with geographies that tend to trap airborne pollutants, such as Beijing, L.A. and Mexico City.
In Europe, post-Dieselgate, parliaments have shown little sympathy for auto makers, laying on much higher testing standards, CO2 limits and levying larger fines for noncompliance. But, as in China, the urgency for tailpipe reform is coming from ground level, caused by chronic and worsening urban air quality in picture-postcard capitals such London, Rome and Vienna. Even Stuttgart and Munich, homes of Mercedes-Benz and BMW respectively, have low-emission zones and bans on older cars.
In many ways the Trump administration has been the worst best friend the domestic auto makers ever had. The recent Safer Affordable Fuel-Efficient (SAFE) Vehicles Rule flattens the curve of fleet efficiency gains through model-year 2026—as in, makes it nearly flat—and relaxes enforcement. Meanwhile, the Administration has challenged California and other states’ power to set stricter vehicle standards, in a case that is expected to take many months to decide.
But regulatory relief comes at a strange time, maybe the strangest time in automotive history and may end up doing more harm than good. After years of dithering, global auto makers have begun mobilizing tens of billions in capital for EV research and development, scaling battery production, establishing supply lines and charging infrastructure. Much of their prestige, consumer goodwill and their stock valuations depend on how the companies are so positioned. Example: Tesla is now worth more than GM and Ford combined.
VW Group is all-in. The company has committed $50 billion to electrification, including new vehicle platforms and battery factories, like the one under construction in Tennessee. Meanwhile, technical development of IC platforms and powertrains has all but stopped. What you are seeing on dealer lots now is effectively obsolete. With the bottom falling out of the market, legacy car makers don’t need help defending the rump of a failing business model. They need help selling EVs.
The straightest line would be a dedicated gas tax. Failing that, I propose rewriting and expanding the federal EV tax credit program and creating an EV Cash for Clunkers program, to encourage sales and help accelerate fleet turnover. What if you could turn in your old Chevy Tahoe and get a federal credit toward one of GMC’s electric Hummers? How’s about trading your clapped-out Ford Mustang for one of those Mach-E things?
The car makers can’t go back now. The only way is forward.