As a relatively pragmatic person who generally chooses the imperfect-yet-achievable path rather than agonizing over the perfect-but-unattainable goal, this chart [from a fascinating Boston Consulting report, in PDF here] frustrates me. I understand why Americans choose hybrid-electric cars as their most favored “green car” technology, but from their it gets fairly crazy. EVs are fantastic on paper, but in the real world they’re still far too expensive, their batteries degrade, they have limited range, oh and did I mention that they’re freaking expensive? Biofuels, America’s third-favorite “green” transportation technology can be fantastic in certain limited applications, but the ongoing ethanol boondoggle proves that it will never be a true “gasoline alternative.” Finally, at the bottom of the list, Americans grudgingly accept only relatively slight interest in the two most promising short-term technologies: diesel and CNG. Neither of these choices is radically more expensive than, say, a hybrid drivetrain and both are considerably less expensive and compromised than EVs at this point. So why are we so dismissive of them?
And here’s how deep the irony goes: America is, apparently, far more sensitive to lifetime costs, and is particularly concerned with upfront costs. So if 56% of Americans are not willing to pay any extra upfront for a “green car,” and only 38% are willing to pay more upfront if it pays off over time, why do 64% claim to be interested in EVs? After all, the battery-powered cars that are currently on the market cost considerably more upfront (on average) than comparable hybrids, diesels and CNG cars. Even the most hard-core EV fans admit that buying an electric car now makes no financial sense, and even hybrids must be driven a huge number of miles to pay off its upfront premium compared to a comparable gasoline or CNG car. American consumers had some of the highest “don’t understand” response rates across the board, but when you break down the data you can’t help wondering if there should have been a few more.
But don’t blame Americans. After all, we’re so well-protected from our energy externalities (a topic I covered recently when I called for a serious push to increase gas taxes), that we couldn’t possibly be expected to know or care about fuel-efficient technologies as our $8/gallon-paying bretheren across the pond and around the world. As this chart shows, the US government lags other developed nations and regions in its fuel economy standard… but even this isn’t the real story. After all, the current argument being made by automakers is that they will be forced to put more cost into future CAFE-compliant cars which consumers will not find worthwhile if gas prices don’t rise. Which brings us back to the real issue:
The problem, it seems, is that America still sees “fuel efficient” cars and “green” cars as being fundamentally different. Just look at the rise of high-priced cars that are green for the sake of being green, and offer no chance paying back their additional costs compared to comparable cars that are simply “fuel efficient.” Fisker’s Karma is “green,” while a 335d is “fuel efficient.” Chevy’s Volt is “green” but the Cruze Eco is merely “efficient.” Tesla’s Roadster is “green” but a Lotus Elise is amazingly efficient. I could go on, but the point should be fairly clear: because “green” has become such an aspirational marketing trope, and because we are still so insulated from the price motivation that drives nearly everyone else on earth to save fuel, we can’t even evaluate the “green car” options out there in a way that makes any sense. In my mind, this is a troubling sign of the market failure that comes from hidden externalities… and as a believer in market solutions, I hope American consumers can start looking at alternative drivetrains with more objectivity in the near future.