Mr. Tesla Goes to Washington

Yesterday was my first experience testifying before a Senate subcommittee – this one was called the Hearing on Advanced Technology Vehicles: The Road Ahead, before the Senate Finance Committee’s Subcommittee on Energy, Natural Resources, and Infrastructure.

Unfortunately, many of the usual members of this subcommittee were not present, due to Jack Valente’s funeral. In attendance were: Senator Bingaman, the Chairman of the Subcommittee; Senator Thomas, the Ranking Republican member; and Senator Salazar of Colorado.

Four other witnesses and I sat at a table facing a raised semicircle of mostly empty Senators’s desks. Sitting behind the empty Senators’s seats were a dozen or so staffers from the offices of the absent Senators. Right in front of me was a wooden box (that matched the decor of the room) with a remotely controlled video camera that would swing ominously from witness to witness as we were talking. Weird.

Behind the other witnesses and me were some reserved seats for our entourage. (Mine consisted only of our own Diarmuid O’Connell, but other witnesses brought hoity-toity lobbyists.) Behind them was open seating for maybe 50 people in the audience. People savvy in the ways of Washington, D.C., would have recognized all of them, I suspect, but I recognized only a few.

The other witnesses were (from my right to my left – the order we testified):

  • Mr. Mark Chernoby, VP, advanced Vehicle Engineering, DaimlerChrysler Corp. (from the Chrysler side of things)
  • Mr. David Vieau, CEO, A123 Systems
  • Me
  • Dr. Walter McManus, Univ. of Michigan, Transportation Research Institute
  • Mr. Phillip Baxley, President, Shell Hydrogen

I did not like the format of the proceedings at all – they seemed designed to prevent any actual conversation. Basically, Senators Bingaman and Thomas each gave a prepared 6-minute speech and then allowed each of us witnesses to speak for 6 minutes. (They were not hard-nosed about time, allowing speakers to run over by a few minutes as needed.) Each of the present Senators then questioned individual witnesses, spending 6 minutes per Senator.

All of the witnesses had submitted written testimony a few days in advance. Mine is here. Each of us pared down our oral testimony to the bare essentials in order to make the time limit. (Some did better than others :) ) It was clear to me that the Senators had indeed read our written testimony in advance of the hearing.

Mr. Chernoby talked exclusively about DaimlerChrysler’s clean diesel work. Clean diesel is great – trucks will be powered by diesel for a long time, and clean diesel is better than dirty diesel. But Mr. Chernoby was lobbying for more diesel cars:

  • Converting a Jeep Grand Cherokee from gasoline to diesel will save 418 gallons per year, while changing a Honda Civic from normal engine to a hybrid engine saves only 154 gallons per year. Therefore, we should be pushing diesels more than hybrids. This logic is a bit convoluted to me – we would save a whole lot more gas if we persuade a significant number of people to give up the Grand Cherokee altogether and drive a Civic! (Or one day, a WhiteStar…)
  • If we lowered the standard for emissions from diesel engines, then more diesels could be sold as “lean burn” clean diesels under the Energy Policy Act of 2005. Duh. Redefine “clean” so that more diesels can be called “clean.”

Senator Salazar: “But isn’t diesel made from petroleum too?”

Mr. Chernoby: “Well yes…”

Some questions came about biodiesel, too, but not one mention of the incredible deforestation going on right now in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand to plant palm oil plantations for biodiesel. Palm oil is the number one feedstock for biodiesel.

Mr. Vieau spent time talking about A123 batteries and their application in plug-in hybrids. Generally, I agreed with him, but he made an outrageous assertion and a poor explanation of hybrids. He made this same assertion twice, so it was not just a matter of misspeaking. Here is his claim:

A hybrid increases the gas mileage of a car from 25 mpg to 45 mpg by adding a battery. A plug-in hybrid increases the size of the battery, and thereby increases the mileage to 100 mpg.

This is both absurd and misleading. If you go back to 2003, the Toyota Prius was basically the same car as the Toyota Echo. The Echo got 38 mpg (combined), while the Prius got 48 mpg (combined). That’s a 26 percent improvement, not an 80 percent improvement. And the reason a plug-in hybrid get better gas mileage is because 20 or so miles per day is powered by electricity from the grid, not gasoline!

Mr. Vieau also urged subsidies for conversions to plug-in hybrids, and he had a converted Prius outside for staff to see after the hearing. I think these conversions are great in that they raise awareness and push the manufacturers. My concern about large-scale conversions are two-fold:

  1. The original manufacturer (e.g. Toyota) would rightfully void the car’s warranty for such a conversion. This is different than installing an aftermarket radio in that you would be changing the engine’s behavior, so the ever-so-important, legally mandated emissions warranty would be void. Is A123 ready to take on this emissions warranty liability?
  2. I just witnessed the video of our own car passing the FMVSS-305 50-mph rear crash test. (Gasoline cars must pass FMVSS-302). Plug-in hybrids probably have to pass both.) This is a brutal crash. A giant “truck” slams into the back of the car at 50 mph, crawls all over it, and basically destroys everything in the back of the car. After the crash, the car is not allowed to leak any flammables (even when inverted), and no hazardous electrical shorts are allowed. Has anybody done this test for a Prius (and every other conversion) where a high-power battery pack has been installed in the trunk? I can guarantee that the spare tire well of a Prius (where A123 installs its supplemental battery pack) is going to be squashed by this test. Who takes on the liability for these cars?

During my oral testimony, I argued for two things (once I figured out how to work the microphone :( )

  1. Reinstatement and enhancement of the income tax credit for electric cars. If hybrids (and practically every other alternative technology cars) get a tax break, so should electric cars!
  2. Allow electric cars to qualify for the same humungous tax break that 3-ton SUVs do, if they are used for business use. An accountant or a lawyer can drive a Tesla to visit clients just as easily as s/he could drive a Hummer.

In my written testimony, you will see that I also argue for the development of domestic commodity battery cell production, though I did not have time to make this case in my oral arguments.

Dr. McManus proposed “fee-bates” to encourage efficient vehicles – basically charging a fee for low-mileage cars based on how far below the CAFE mpg requirement, and awarding a rebate to high-mileage cars based on how far above this CAFE number. Nice idea, but the Senators seemed skeptical about the viability of passing such a law. A lot of voters drive big ol’ SUVs… Dr. Manus came from the car industry but seemed a bit hostile to (or at least frustrated with) the American car companies. Just my impression.

Mr. Baxter (the man from Shell) had me jumping out of my seat wanting to call him on his nonsense. I never did get to respond, so his astounding assertions went unchallenged. The responses below only occurred in my mind…)

  • The single largest impediment to the wide-scale adoption of hydrogen cars is local regulations and obstacles to installing hydrogen filling stations. (What???)
  • Shell already makes hydrogen as part of its petroleum refining process. In fact, Shell makes so much hydrogen that it could power the entire fleet of American cars, were they powered by hydrogen. All we need is filling stations. Oh. And cars too. (Really? What a wacky assertion! I checked his written testimony, and this gem is not there. But he made this claim twice during his oral presentation.)
  • Hydrogen is a clean fuel, which can be made from wind, solar, and nuclear power. (But how efficiently, Mr. Baxter? Did you know that an electric car like a Tesla would drive more than three times as far as a fuel cell car on the same “clean” electricity?) Mr. Baxter did admit that the hydrogen they make today is by reforming natural gas…
  • The government should not pick technologies; it should let the market decide. However, it should increase its subsidies for Hydrogen. (Isn’t that picking a technology? Don’t you know that the only reason any car company is fooling around with fuel cells is the modified California ARB ZEV Mandate – another case of the government picking a technology, and picking poorly? )

What a load of hogwash. I wonder how much of this nonsense sticks, and how much is seen for what it is by the Senators and their staff.

I met with a couple of other Senators and staff afterwards, again reminding them that rumors of the demise of the electric car have been exaggerated.

And then – for continuity’s sake, I flew home just in time to catch Chris Paine’s anniversary showing of Who Killed the Electric Car at De Anza College. I don’t know if I made any difference in DC, but here in California, the future of cars is electric.

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