With its request for another $25 billion bail-out, on top of the $25 billion they’ve already been promised to help with small-engine retooling, Detroit’s travails have turned into a black comedy. We’re asking the big car companies to improve CAFE standards and make plug-in hybrid vehicles. The infuriating thing is that they already build efficient small cars for sale in Europe, Brazil, Korea and China. Why not build those cars here? They want us to pay the costs of conversion, up front, because they don’t believe people will buy small cars. Right now they’re justified in believing that we won’t buy cars at all, at least not from Detroit.
In December, 1941, Detroit had just introduced the 1942 model cars. After Pearl Harbor the government asked them to build tanks, and then airplanes. They did it with enthusiasm and efficiency. The difference is that they had a qualified buyer: the government.
So here’s an idea. Let’s offer Detroit the $25 billion. For that price tag, we’ll expect the factories to replace the entire federal fleet — tanks, trucks, postal vans, limousines, Forest Service jeeps — with flex-fuel plug-in hybrid electric vehicles. Last year, the feds operated some 642,000 vehicles. Subtract the 8,800 Abrams battle tanks, which would soak up the whole budget by themselves, and add a few hundred thousand vehicles for state and municipal fleets to round the production up to 1 million vehicles. So $25 billion would replace the whole fleet for an average of $25,000 per. Not a bad wholesale price, especially when you figure in the fuel savings and then balance the cost of a Forest Service fire truck against a cheap sedan. A big chunk of the cost could be covered by selling off the old fleet to equatorial countries where palm-tree mechanics will happily convert them all to run on sugar ethanol.
The flex-fuel requirement is important. It means that a gasoline engine would also accept ethanol or methanol, a diesel would also accept jet fuel or vegetable oil, and a natural gas engine would also run on propane or methane. It means that every fuel source has market competition, and a fleet operator can look further afield for low bids.
A federal flex-fuel plug-in hybrid-electric vehicle is a FFFPHEV. I can’t wait to hear a senator pronounce that. And a five-year replacement plan for flex-fuel plug-in hybrid-electric vehicle replacement plan is a FYRPFFFPHEV.
Below, an electric postal van from Baker Electromotive of Rome, N.Y.
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