PORSCHE -- a company associated with environmental friendliness like Wilt Chamberlain is with prim chastity -- is going green. On the company's stand at the Los Angeles Auto Show (starting Friday) is a front-wheel-drive, zero-emission electric car. One version of the car is a series-hybrid -- the gas engine doesn't turn the wheels but, rather, charges the batteries -- and features all-wheel drive. Very cutting-edge stuff.
The car is a Lohner-Porsche, circa 1900, built by automotive pioneer Ferdinand Porsche and the Lohner coachworks in Vienna. Porsche AG has conscripted the car from its museum in order to establish the company's bona fides as it introduces the Porsche Cayenne hybrid concept, the gas-electric version of its urban trailblazer. Setting aside the Cayenne hybrid's technical merits for a moment, we should ask: Why didn't the all-wheel-drive series-hybrid version of the Lohner-Porsche succeed?
For reasons, it turns out, that sound familiar to us today. The vehicle was complex and costly; the batteries -- over a ton of lead-acid -- were not sufficiently "energy dense," which is to say their electrical output was canceled out by their weight and bulk. Over a century later, as the world awaits salvation from the curse of its own oil-based mobility, automakers cite these same drawbacks in explaining why plug-in hybrids (PHEVs) and electric vehicles (EVs) are not ready for primetime. And these are not the ogres of Detroit. This is Honda, Toyota and Nissan. Batteries remain the critical and highly contested component, the as-yet imperfect technology upon which the future of the automobile depends.
Sometime this week, various environmental and human rights groups -- including the Freedom From Oil Campaign coalition -- will protest outside the show's site at the L.A. Convention Center. These groups argue that automakers already have the technology to achieve vast increases in fuel economy by making their vehicles hybrids, PHEVs (which run in electric-only mode for some distance on grid-supplied energy) and EVs. These groups contend that automakers hypocritically tout their green technologies at auto shows only to improve their image -- "greenwashing" -- even as they fight increased fuel-economy standards in Congress and the courts. At the moment, for example, automakers are suing to stop California and other states from imposing their own greenhouse-gas emission standards that would sharply increase fuel-economy standards.
These critics are half right. The automakers are hypocrites for promoting themselves as agents of change even while they battle increased regulation. The cognitive dissonance is plain in the Cayenne hybrid, or the elephantine Cadillac Escalade hybrid (also at the show). These slightly more efficient monsters will look, in some future Museum of the Automobile, ridiculous, a testament to our conflicted times.
But as for the wholesale conversion of the automotive fleet to hybrids, PHEVs and EVs, well, that's problematic precisely for the same reasons faced by Ferdinand Porsche. Even the most advanced traction batteries have issues of energy density, durability, cost and safety. It is not true that the automakers can simply throw a switch and mass-produce reliable, affordable and desirable grid-charged gas-electrics or EVs that will go 100 miles on a charge, not just in sunny L.A. but wintry Calgary. This is the contention of people who do not have to put their names on cars, who do not have to sell, warranty, service and answer suits by dissatisfied customers. This is the contention of people who don't have to put out the fires of overtaxed lithium-ion batteries.
In fact, there are plug-in hybrids on the horizon, most notably the Chevy Volt project, and the Volvo C30 ReCharge concept, which is at the show. But no one knows if these cars are acutally going to work. They are huge technical gambles.
If it sounds as if I'm defending the automakers, I am, but I'm also proposing a course of action. Government needs to spend whatever it takes to help automakers develop battery technology and should grant consumers whatever tax breaks and incentives necessary to make the transition to electric vehicles, in a generation, all as a matter of supreme national interest.