The Truth About Cars » Policy http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. Mon, 28 Jul 2014 21:27:46 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.9.1 The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. The Truth About Cars no The Truth About Cars editors@ttac.com editors@ttac.com (The Truth About Cars) 2006-2009 The Truth About Cars The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. The Truth About Cars » Policy http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/wp-content/themes/ttac-theme/images/logo.gif http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com Blind Spot: It Ain’t Easy Being Green http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2012/04/blind-spot-it-aint-easy-being-green/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2012/04/blind-spot-it-aint-easy-being-green/#comments Tue, 17 Apr 2012 22:04:40 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=440444

When government, media and industry agree that a trend exists, it’s generally taken as fait accompli. After all, these three institutions wield immense cultural power, and together they are more than capable of making any prophecy self-fulfilling. But there’s always a stumbling block: acceptance by the everyday folk who actually make up our society. And when a trend is taken for granted, the ensuing rush to be seen as being in touch with said trend often generates more heat than light. Such is the case with the trend towards “green cars.” Few would deny that they are “the future,” but at the same time, there’s been precious little examination of how this future is to be realized. And when such examination does take place, it tends to raise more questions than it answers.

Case in point: the Union of Concerned Scientists recently published a report examining just how “green” the “greenest” cars available, namely electric cars, are. By examining the average C02 emissions of the various regional power grids, they are able to show on a roughly apples-to-apples basis how carbon-efficient EVs are in comparison to their gasoline-sipping cousins. And their findings show that in broad swathes of the US, pure-electric cars are little better than hybrids like the Prius in terms of average C02 emissions.

This ACS report is something of a dual-edged sword. On the one hand, it makes an important point about EVs: that they are only as environmentally-friendly as the grid from which they draw their power. This fact has long been ignored by policymakers who take the “greenness” of EVs for granted and create uniform national EV stimulus, as if EVs were uniformly “green.” On the other hand, the ACS clearly has a pro-EV agenda, and its report concludes that

There are no areas of the country where electric vehicles have higher global warming emissions than the average new gasoline vehicle.

Given that EV offerings are currently limited to the Compact and Subcompact segments, this is hardly a fair comparison. And since the EPA includes cars like the Bentley Continental GTC as a “subcompact,” a fair comparison would take some real work. To be fair though, the UCS is correct when it points out that 45% of Americans live in the coastal regions where relatively clean grids offer strong environmental incentives for EV use. More importantly, those areas which have dirtier grids tend to be the same regions (the South and Midwest) where geography and development patterns create more practical disincentives for EV use. For this reason, the somewhat disappointing results of the study are unlikely to dramatically hurt the nascent EV market.

Still, this geographical distribution has important consequences for public policy. For one thing, it points out the futility of a nationwide EV incentive program, at least as an environmental policy. Luckily, this reality seems to have taken hold in D.C., where EV-only incentives are being broadened to include multiple fuels and encourage local solutions. On the other hand, the fact that EVs are a hot trend means local governments are often more anxious to show off their trend-awareness than craft sensible policy based on local realities.

For example, Colorado has one of the least “green” grids in the country, and yet its state government has been one of the most aggressive in handing out EV tax credits. Prior to 2010, Colorado allowed Tesla buyers to take up to $42,000 in credits. Today EVs get a $6,000 incentive in addition to the $7,500 (soon to be $10k) federal credit, and a local group has received half a million dollars in federal grants to promote EVs in the state. Given that Colorado-based EVs emit equivalent emissions to a 33 MPG combined gasoline car (think: Hyundai Elantra), this is proof that hopping on a PR-driven bandwagon often outweighs the actual benefits of such “environmental” policies.

But, in a profoundly ironic twist, Colorado may well become a leading market for EVs… and not just because of its generous government incentives either. In fact, Colorado’s relatively dirty grid actually makes it one of the cheaper states in which to operate an EV. In its cost analysis of individual cities, the UCS finds that Colorado Springs’ 2.4 cents-per-mile operating cost for a Nissan Leaf is one of the cheapest in the country, especially when compared to cities with the best emissions scores. Though there’s not enough evidence in this study to support a direct link between the cost and cleanliness of electrical grids, it’s no surprise to find that they do trade off with each other to some extent.

This is one of the key takeaways from the report for the simple reason that running cost, rather than pure environmental benefit, is what will drive the EV market beyond its early adopter niche. And as utilities invest in ever-greener powerplants in hopes of improving the environmental performance of EVs, running costs will rise. And as EVs become more popular, increased demand on the grid will further drive up prices. This tradeoff encapsulates the dilemma of all EV stimulus: the hoped-for environmental benefits are dependent on the mainstream economic viability of EVs, which in turn depends on cheaper (rather than cleaner) power and much, much cheaper EVs. The UCS report’s conclusion attempts to square this circle by pushing EV adoption as the overriding concern, noting

Of course, cleaning up the nation’s electricity production won’t deliver large reductions in the transportation sector’s emissions and oil consumption unless electric vehicles become a market success. While they are now coming onto the market in a much bigger way than ever before, EVs still face many hurdles, including higher up-front costs than gasoline vehicles. Lower fueling costs for EVs, however, provide an important incentive for purchasing them, and our cost analysis of 50 cities across the country shows that EV owners can start saving money immediately on fuel costs by using electricity in place of gasoline.

While this is true enough, it fully ignores how the market works. For one thing, the fuel savings touted in the report are in comparison to an “average gasoline compact vehicle,” and therefore fails to account for most of the market segments. Consumers buy cars that fill their needs, and many Americans need cars larger than a compact. Furthermore, though those savings are estimated to be as much as $1,220 per year (for a Nissan Leaf), these savings do not include amortization of the EV’s up-front cost premium. Consumers will see “immediate savings” on fuel costs, but will be far behind on total ownership cost for years.

Currently the EV market is truly a “green” market, as potential EV consumers are currently motivated by the desire to reduce their carbon emissions. But EVs simply won’t have much of an impact on national emissions until they offer the kind of “green” that actually motivates consumers: money, in the form of real savings. As long as federal and state governments focus, as the UCS has, on carbon emissions, EVs simply won’t find much of a market. If, as the UCS claims, reductions in transportation-sector C02 emissions require mass EV adoption as a prerequisite, the carbon question is currently little more than a distraction. Environmental benefits must give way to economic reality, lest all of the possible “green” benefits of EVs remain a permanent mirage.

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Blind Spot: Obama No Longer Dreams Of Electric Cars http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2012/03/blind-spot-obama-no-longer-dreams-of-electric-cars/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2012/03/blind-spot-obama-no-longer-dreams-of-electric-cars/#comments Tue, 13 Mar 2012 00:00:31 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=434742

“The electric things have their life too. Paltry as those lives are.”

Phillip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?

At the High School I attended, progress reports were never a good thing. Halfway through each term, students who were averaging a D or lower would receive a print-out of their grade accompanied by a line from the teacher explaining how the miscreant in question was failing to live up to expectations. True to form, the White House’s just-released “One Year Progress Report” [PDF] on President Obama’s “Blueprint For A Secure Energy Agenda” includes some devastating evidence of abject failure. But unlike my post-progress report conversations with the parental stakeholders, Obama has a lot more to explain to voters than a simple “insufficient homework turned in.”

Just over a year ago,  in his 2011 State Of The Union, President Obama unveiled plan to stimulate “One Million Electric Vehicles By 2015,” arguing that

“With more research and incentives, we can break our dependence on oil with biofuels, and become the first country to have a million electric vehicles on the road by 2015″

Shortly thereafter, his Department of Energy released a report that touted wildly-optimistic production goals for several pure-electric cars, concluding that

Reaching the goal is not likely to be constrained by production capacity. Major vehicle manufacturers have announced (or been the subject of media reports) that indicate a cumulative electric drive vehicle manufacturing capacity of over 1.2 million vehicles through 2015.

Strong incentives, research and development, and assistance in establishing manufacturing and infrastructure is underway or planned. These activities directly support consumer demand of these technologies, and mitigate some of the uncertainty associated with the large-scale adoption of electric drive vehicles.

That argument became conclusively moot this year, when production of the Chevrolet Volt was stopped for the third time in its short lifetime, as unwanted cars piled up on dealer lots. Though the Volt has been defined as a symbol of GM’s bailout, it is even more politically significant as a component of Obama’s bold million-plugin plan. In last year’s report, the Department of Energy estimated that 120,000 Volts would be put on the road in the US this year, when the Volt hs actually only just broke 1,000 units sold per month for the first time in February. That 90% discrepancy between expectation and reality is crucial to Obama’s pledge, as the “1.2m production capacity through 2015″ that the DOE took for granted included some 505,000 Volts (at 120k/year from 2012-2015). With the Volt selling at 10% of DOE estimates, the entire goal falls apart (the next-closest vehicle, Nissan’s Leaf, isn’t estimated to hit 100,000 units per year until 2014).

Having seen the Volt’s underperformance coming, I’ve been wondering when the Obama Administration would recognize reality and admit that its goal was out of reach. But this being politics, you can’t just hand ammunition to your opponents. Admissions of failure must be couched in obfuscation and swaddled in unrelated good news. Which brings us to the just-released “Progress Report,” which is something like the polar opposite of landing on an aircraft carrier festooned with “Mission Accomplished” banners.

A sunny, upbeat document, the “Progress Report” introduces itself with wide-eyed optimism:

On the one-year anniversary of your Blueprint for a Secure Energy Future, which outlined your goals for American energy, we wanted to present a report on the significant progress we have made. During the last year alone, we established new incentives to increase safe and responsible domestic oil and gas production; proposed the toughest fuel economy standards for cars and trucks in history; provided millions of Americans with efficient and affordable transportation choices; launched new programs to improve energy efficiency in our homes, buildings, public transit, aviation and roadway systems; and took unprecedented steps to make the United States a leader in the clean energy
race.

But if we skip ahead to the section regarding EVs, we find that all the sugary good news is just helping mask the rank scent of failure. So, how does a sitting president admit failure? It’s as easy as writing

“By 2015, the United States will be able to produce enough batteries and components to support one million plug-in hybrid and electric vehicles.”

Notice the key difference: then, the argument was that government action would put a million EVs on the road, now the argument is that the infrastructure will be in place to meet the goal. Oh, and in case you’re a fellow ADD-sufferer, remember that the DOE determined just one year ago that

Reaching the goal is not likely to be constrained by production capacity.

In essence this report repeats the exact same thing. The difference is simply that a year ago, the President could pretend that the market would simply soak up whatever number of EVs the car companies (most of whom had received some form of government support) said they would build. Now even the most hardened partisan can’t maintain such obvious self-delusion, as the demand for EVs (the Volt in particular) has been proven to be well below expectations. This failure is made explicit in the Progress Report, which notes that

in March 2012, the President launched a clean energy grand challenge to make electric-powered vehicles as affordable and convenient as gasoline-powered vehicles for the average American family within a decade.

In short, the message has gone from “thanks to government intervention, the future is now” to “thanks to government intervention, the future might be here in a decade.” Or, to quote a certain former presidential candidate, “whoops!”

Some might argue that this is a textbook example of government wasting money trying to affect the market, and a clear sign that the market is going to do what it wants regardless of our publicly-funded exercises in futility. Instead, President Obama is “doubling down” by requesting a billion dollars be spent on a “Community Deployment” scheme aimed at boosting demand for “advanced technology vehicles” through local partnerships, and tax credits for advanced technology vehicles be bumped to a maximum of $10,000. To be fair, the retreat from EVs is reflected in the new “technology neutral” approach, which doesn’t limit subsidies to EVs but

allow[s] communities to determine if electrification, natural gas, or biofuels would be the best fit.

But the proposed changes to the consumer tax credit [PDF] have some very vague and confusing stipulations, namely that

(1) the vehicle operates primarily on an alternative to petroleum; (2) as of the January 1, 2012, there are few vehicles in operation in the U.S. using the same technology as such vehicle.

The vagueness of those rules makes them hard to interpret, but it seems that clause (1) excludes high-efficiency, small battery plug-ins like the Prius Plug-In while clause (2) could well exclude natural gas vehicles (there were well over 100k NGVs on the road as of 2010). In which case, this policy is merely a continuation of the attempt to create a market for EVs (and since we’re talking disappointing technologies, possibly hydrogen cars). The community deployment scheme seems more technologically neutral, but is flawed in the extent that it assumes that local solutions will be more broadly applicable. Besides, most local governments with strong “green car” demand potential are already incentivizing public EV charging stations and the like. And don’t get me started about the fact that the government is even pretending that biofuels are a serious solution to either environmental or energy security concerns.

As gas prices go up, we could see EV and plug-in sales improve, but it’s clear that there won’t be one million EVs on American roads by 2015. Especially with policy appearing to shift towards a more “technology neutral” mode, there is a very real threat that the huge oversupply of natural gas could create a short term market for NGVs that could doom EVs for another decade or more. If the goal of Obama’s energy policy were to improve energy independence or help the efficient use of resources, this would be good news as it’s much easier and cheaper to build (and therefore, subsidize) NGVs than EVs (even without considering the low cost of natural gas itself). Unfortunately, we have already made a significant national investment in EV/battery technology, which satisfies yet another political constituency: environmentalists.

Without clearly communicated goals, government policies will never gain the credibility with markets they need to impact. And given President Obama’s track record so far, it’s clear  he needs to more clearly admit that his EV initiative has failed and express a clear set of goals for America’s transportation and energy sectors. Unfortunately, the fact that that he’s chosen to admit that the EV dream is over in such an oblique manner indicates that expecting such forthrightness would seem more than a little naive. All of which simply confirms that this issue, like so many others facing the nation, is no longer a question of policy, but of politics.

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Chinese Government Announces EV Policy: Made In China Means Money http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2012/01/chinese-government-announces-ev-policy-made-in-china-means-money/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2012/01/chinese-government-announces-ev-policy-made-in-china-means-money/#comments Wed, 11 Jan 2012 13:15:52 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=425549

The Chinese government finally announced its long-awaited and much discussed subsidy program for the fledgling electric car industry. China will waive sales taxes on electric and fuel cell cars. There is only one limitation, which likely will make some Michigan Senators scream bloody murder: The cars must be made domestically in China.

Waiving the tax will lower the price of a car by 9 percent. According to China Daily, the Chinese government has more on offer to lure people away from fossil fuels:

“Buyers of locally made electric cars are also eligible for government subsidies of up to 120,000 yuan ($19,100) per vehicle. Imported models such as GM’s Chevy Volt are excluded from this policy.”

Importing an EV will remain legal, but it becomes silly: The imported car is slapped with a 25 percent customs duty. On top of that, sales tax, and no incentive. The domesticated EV will have no duty, no tax due, and the government will kick in big amounts of cash

That this policy would be like the above was presaged by moves of foreign joint venture partners of influential (i.e. government-owned) Chinese automakers. From GM to Nissan, all are making preparations for EV production in China.

According to China Daily,

“A total of 49 domestically made models, including the Sale electric car developed by SAIC’s car venture with General Motors and two electric cars made at Volkswagen’s two Chinese car ventures.”

I think they mean the Sail.

 

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The Electric Car Jungle: Battery Swap And The “Natural Monopoly” Of Grid Management http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2011/07/the-electric-car-jungle/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2011/07/the-electric-car-jungle/#comments Tue, 12 Jul 2011 21:30:16 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=402369

Electric vehicles present all kinds of challenges to the traditional ways of understanding cars. From design to differentiation, from range to refueling, EVs simply act different than the internal combustion-powered cars we’ve been refining for centuries now. And yet, through consumer incentives and subsidized charging stations, governments seem to be barreling headlong towards the goal of simply replacing our gas cars with electric ones, as if the two were fundamentally interchangeable. Sadly this is not the case, and a study by Project Better Place and PJM Interconnection [PDF] illustrates in stark terms just how costly an unplanned, uncoordinated rush to electric cars can be.

PJM and Better Place open their study with a question that some might find slightly absurd: what would happen if a major metropolitan area suddenly had a million EVs? The question is only absurd from a pure market perspective, as global EV sales volume projections are generally low enough to keep the possibility of a single million-EV metropolis squarely in the realm of science fiction. From a policy perspective, however, the study offers profound insights into issues that the governments who are currently promoting EVs absolutely must consider. Without an understanding of the unintended consequences of a rush to EVs, governments risk spiraling costs, misplaced investments, and market failures.

To understand the potential effects of a million-EV metropolis, PJM and Better place have created a complex computer model which

considered a distribution of 1 million EVs in the Washington-Baltimore Metropolitan Area and modeled the impact of charging the EV batteries in three scenarios: unmanaged charging, consumer-price-incentivized charging, and managed charging via a Central Network Operator (CNO).

With a million EVs in one metropolitan area, a huge percentage of grid energy would be diverted towards transportation that was once powered by gasoline, and these three scenarios represent different approaches to managing the grid impact. The first, or “unmanaged” scenario is essentially the status quo, a market-driven pricing system in which cars are simply powered off of a standard electrical grid using home chargers and the public fast chargers that some cities are already installing (called Battery Quick Chargers or BQCs). The “Time Of Use” (TOU) scenario used a two-tier pricing scenario, modeled on the pilot EV tariff developed by Southern California Edison, which uses advanced home meters to distribute energy for (theoretically) lower grid impacts and electricity prices (as well as public BQCs). The “Central Network Operator” (CNO) scenario models a single EV services provider responsible for all charging and infrastructure, using Better Place’s in-house network models and experiences. In this scenario, the BQCs are replaced by BSSs, or Battery Swap Stations, another unique Better Place offering.

Without going into too much complexity in describing the simulation (check out the PDF for more), it starts with a transportation model which maps EV distribution, trips and charging behavior. That model is then run through each of the three different scenarios, and the results of each is then sent through PJM’s grid market model and assessed for impacts on grid load and energy prices (assuming no fundamental changes in generation and transmission techniques). The results are dramatic, and graphically illustrate the problem with a vehicle-centric approach to EV stimulus.

As the very first chart in this post shows (also shown here in grey), the unmanaged scenario causes huge peaks and valleys in grid load, as commuters follow regular schedules and charge their vehicles at roughly the same times, charging them until full as soon as they are plugged in. The red line in that chart tracks “Locational Marginal Prices” (LMPs), which are at their highest when the grid faces its highest draws. This results in $786.3m in wholesale energy increases per year, a number that the TOU scenario (shown above) actually makes worse by 4%. Where TOU does help is in the annual energy costs aggregated to EV owners (thanks to fixed prices), but it is only shown to help by a mere 3.7%.

If you replace the haphazard system of home-charging and public BQCs with Better Place’s battery swap stations (BSSs) and network management system, the peaks and valleys in the grid draw are dramatically leveled out compared to the unmanaged and TOU scenarios. And though localized marginal prices are higher at times than in the TOU scenario, on aggregate they offer 22% savings compared to the unmanaged scenario. That’s over $35m annually (in one city) that’s not coming out of consumer’s pockets. More importantly, wholesale energy prices enjoy a whopping 45% savings compared to the unmanaged scenario for a staggering $350m in annual savings. Now imagine those results multiplied across every American metropolis with a million vehicles, and the impacts of not committing to a central network operator are impossible to ignore on a national policymaking level.

In essence, only a single central network operator can manage the chaos of individual transportation without restricting mobility or causing regular stress on the grid. I personally tend to favor bottom-up, market driven solutions, and at first glance putting a single operator in charge of managing the distribution of energy for private transportation does not seem to be that. But when you go through the model it becomes clear that this single central switchboard and distribution system is actually necessary for efficient market function, allowing for constant response to localized marginal prices and constant mitigation of naturally clustered usage patterns. In light of this reality, the study’s policy implications are less shocking:

This joint study firmly concludes that the increases in wholesale energy cost due to the additional load of 1 million EVs in the Washington-Baltimore Metropolitan Area can be reduced by hundreds of millions of dollars per year if the charging is managed by a CNO responding to real-time LMPs.  These savings are without considering the value from various ancillary services and of large-scale dispatchable load for increasing the penetration of renewables, economic dispatch efficiency, and heat-rates for environmental considerations.  Existing mechanisms do not necessarily allow CNOs to capture any of this value, which could be used for infrastructure deployment.  Based on these conclusions, we emphasize how critically important both the presence of real-time LMPs and of CNOs are to reducing the impacts to the electric power system.  Therefore, we recommend that incentives be developed for advancing the power system such that PRD incorporates LMPs and for EV incentives to reach beyond the consumer to CNOs so that intelligent charging networks can be quickly constructed.

By simply giving consumers credits to buy EVs, the government is setting up the same consumers to overpay massively for their electricity, grids for overstress and utilities for waste and inefficiency. Rather than encouraging these negative outcomes, perhaps governments should consider investing in Better Place’s holistic network management approach. The upfront costs of a Better Place-style CNO are indeed large, but the alternative is well-over $350m in annual increased wholesale energy costs (in one city alone)… waste without end. Throughout history economists have found so-called “natural monopolies,” in which markets are unable to provide a service as efficiently as a single actor. With the problem of EV grid management, we seem to have found another. And because the battery-swap model also fixes the major micro-level problems with EVs, namely lack of range and battery depreciation costs, Better Place is looking more and more like a no-brainer to me all the time.

Picture 285 Picture 289 This is not what you want to see.... The "Better Place" (CNO) Scenario Picture 288 The "Smart Charger" Scenario Eventually... ]]>
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The Politics Of Car: Has Mike Jackson Defined The Car Guy Consensus? http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2011/06/the-politics-of-car-has-mike-jackson-defined-the-car-guy-consensus/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2011/06/the-politics-of-car-has-mike-jackson-defined-the-car-guy-consensus/#comments Thu, 02 Jun 2011 17:49:39 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=397171

AutoNation boss Mike Jackson has long been the front runner to inherit Bob Lutz’s mantle as the most opinionated guy in the car business, and recently he’s been moving to lock up the distinction. Jackson recently gave the world the concept of the gas price “freak-out point” as well as delivering memorable quips on “green car” demand (while calling for higher gas prices), and has been outspoken about the industry’s struggles with “push” production, oversupply, fleet dependence and more. And now he’s laid out what may very well be the basis for a solid “car guy consensus” for political progress on safety issues. Autoobserver reports:

The main points of Jackson’s outline to improve road safety: 1) Make text-messaging illegal – and since that’s unlikely to make much difference, install technology to block text messages in moving vehicles; 2) Raise the gasoline tax to fund safety-enhancing and congestion-reducing traffic-management technology, including intelligent road signals and total automation of toll collection; 3) Get serious about lane discipline by restricting trucks to right-hand lanes and passing only in the left lane.

Can I get an “Amen”? Politics are one of the most divisive issues in American life, and TTAC struggles with the inevitable polarization caused by political topics every day… so hats off to Jackson for solidifying a non-partisan agenda that all (or at least most) car guys can get behind.

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Bailout Watch 372: The Man Who Would Be Czar http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2009/02/bailout-watch-371-the-man-who-would-be-czar/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2009/02/bailout-watch-371-the-man-who-would-be-czar/#comments Wed, 04 Feb 2009 18:39:59 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=239102

Point three of Barack Obama's ethics pledge to the American people is that "no political appointees in an Obama-Biden administration will be permitted to work on regulations or contracts directly and substantially related to their prior employer for two years. And no political appointee will be able to lobby the executive branch after leaving government service during the remainder of the administration." Obviously that's a high standard, and one that seems increasingly important as the lines between government and industry are blurred by rampant bailouts. And clearly not everyone makes the cut. But as Obama assembles a team to "restructure" the auto industry, the spirit (if not the letter) of his ban on revolving door hiring seems to be falling by the wayside.

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Point three of Barack Obama’s ethics pledge to the American people is that “no political appointees in an Obama-Biden administration will be permitted to work on regulations or contracts directly and substantially related to their prior employer for two years. And no political appointee will be able to lobby the executive branch after leaving government service during the remainder of the administration.” Obviously that’s a high standard, and one that seems increasingly important as the lines between government and industry are blurred by rampant bailouts. And clearly not everyone makes the cut. But as Obama assembles a team to “restructure” the auto industry, the spirit (if not the letter) of his ban on revolving door hiring seems to be falling by the wayside.

According to the Detroit News, the leading candidate for Obama’s “Car Czar” position is a certain Mr Steven Girsky, who the DetN describes as a “longtime auto industry analyst.” Having advised Centerbridge Industrial Partners and JP Morgan on auto issues, Girsky is more than simply an analyst. Automotive News [sub] reported in October of 2008 that Girsky was hired by the United Auto Workers to advise on the proposed Chrysler-GM merger and as AN dryly put it “he may also advise the UAW on a possible federal bailout of the U.S. automakers.” Girsky was also a consultant to GM’s CEO and CFO for just under a year, leaving the firm in 2006. As of October 2008, he also served on the board of Dana Corp, a massive auto supplier firm.

Does Girsky’s experience make him incapable of living up to Obama’s high moral standards? Technically, no. Like Tom Daschle before him, Girsky is clearly a lobbyist, though he’s not registered as one (the de facto bright line rule for Obama). But having been paid by the UAW within months to advise them on bailout strategy, he’s also clearly not going to live up to the “no work on regulations or contracts directly and substantially related to their prior employer for two years” standard. And if he is appointed as Car Czar, it’s safe to say that he will be guiding regulations and money disbursements that are “substantially related” to the work he has been doing for the UAW.

But as with so many political decisions, the choice of a Car Czar will likely be decided on the lesser of two evils. After all, Girsky may be steeped in the cozy relationships between GM management, the UAW and the government, but at least he has industry experience. Steven Rattner of Quadrangle Group has also been named as a possible czar, but as Newsweek reports, his main qualifications appears to be as a Democratic fundraiser (he is married to the National Finance Chairwoman of the DNC) and media-elite insider. Sure he covered energy and economy beats at the NY Times back in the day, but there’s little to indicate that he would make an especially good Car Czar.

Meanwhile, for all of Girsky’s industry connections, some of his ideas are decidedly TTAC-ish. Like when he got AN Executive Editor Edward Lapham‘s collar up by suggesting [sub] that the Detroit Three might need to cut as many as 70 percent of its dealerships. He even seems to cause some consternation among his UAW employers, based on this post at Salon. And that might just indicate the kind of experience and perspective that Obama’s team clearly needs. After all, his Climate and Energy Czar Carol Browner told Automotive News [sub] at the DC Auto Show that there are “lots of clean cars out there and options for the consumer.” You know, because the OEMs say so.

Meanwhile, it seems that nothing will stop or slow the rolling tide of money that is about to slosh into the automotive industry. $2b worth of battery research money is said to be going into the forthcoming stimulus package, and the Senate just approved an amendment to the stimulus bill which would make auto loan interest and state sales taxes deductable from federal taxes. Whether Girsky or Rattner is appointed as Car Czar won’t likely make much of a difference in terms of the amount of money that will be funneled into the industry over the following years. The crucial distinction is whether experience is worth the possibility of a conflict of interest.

Obama’s strict ethical standards are admirable, but if his options for Car Czar are between an industry insider who defines the term “revolving door” and a candidate who is being considered solely due to his political connections, something has clearly gone wrong. I’m not sure this kind of compromise is what people had in mind when they voted for “change we can believe in.” But in this familiarly frustrating choice, at least Girsky has a record of taking stands on crucial issues facing the industry. If he can publicly explain his recent UAW dealings in a way that passes Obama’s muster, Girsky may actually be the least of the available evils.

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