Wednesday, June 21, 2006

detroit wins; americans lose - when lobbying hurts the environment and consumers

this photo is of a toyota prius we rented from zip car. on a 500 mile journey, including the mountains of west virginia, this car averaged 46 mpg!

Excerpts from Bush's speech today:

"On energy:

We got to diversify away from oil. And the best way to do it is through new technologies. And we agreed we would share technologies between our nations and between the E.U. and the United States. The E.U. needs to get diversified, as well.

And so this is going to be a very interesting period for us as new technologies develop. And we're willing to share those technologies."

That's great talk, but perhaps american car buyers ought to know this…from the new york times:

EVER since the first Prius rolled off the assembly line almost a decade ago at the Takaoka plant not far from Toyota City, hybrid cars have basically been a luxury item. If you owned one, you could feel good about using less gasoline and being a trendsetter, but you couldn't expect the fuel savings to make up for the thousands of extra dollars that the hybrid cost. There was no financial reward for environmental virtue.

But in the last few months, something important has changed. Gas prices have settled in at close to $3 a gallon, which is enough to make a few hybrids almost worth it, if not quite. And since the start of the year, the federal government has been giving generous tax credits to hybrid buyers, pushing the Prius and a couple of other hybrids into bargain territory.

Between the money saved on gas and the tax credit, the Honda Civic Hybrid will cost slightly less over a five-year span than the regular Civic, according to Consumer Reports. The same is true of the sharp-looking new Toyota Camry Hybrid, relative to a regular Camry. If you're deciding between a Prius and a regular Camry, the Prius, which gets a $3,150 credit, will start saving you money in just a few years.

The point of a tax policy like this — the point of a lot of tax policy, in fact — is to give people an incentive to change their behavior, and persuading Americans to use less oil certainly sounds like one of Washington's priorities these days.

Yet, astoundingly, many of the tax credits are about to be taken away. So if you are thinking of buying a Prius or Camry Hybrid, do it soon, as in this month or maybe next. And if you are wondering whether policy makers mean it when they say they're serious about changing our energy policy, join the crowd.

THE first thing to understand about the hybrid tax credit is that it was never really intended to reduce oil imports from the Middle East or slow the effects of global warming. The credit was created to prop up Detroit while giving conservation a nod.

Last summer, when Congress was completing an energy bill, Toyota's and Honda's hybrids were already winning people over in the marketplace, and it was clear that any tax credit would go overwhelmingly to buyers of Japanese cars. So members of Congress, with help from Detroit's lobbyists, came up with an ingenious solution. They created a cap, a maximum number of hybrids that any single manufacturer could sell — 60,000 — before a clock started ticking, causing the credits for that carmaker to begin disappearing two quarters later.

The idea, Mark Kemmer, a G.M. lobbyist, told Automotive News, was to keep any one company from getting "a runaway benefit."

Toyota hit the 60,000 mark last month, less than five months after the Jan. 1 start of the program, and the credits for its hybrid buyers will be cut in half on Oct. 1. (Because there are waiting lists for the Prius and Camry Hybrid, people who buy one in August or September may get their car after Oct. 1.) On April 1, 2007, the credits will be cut in half again. On Oct. 1, 2007, they will vanish. Honda, for its part, will probably hit the cap next year.

And the Big Three? Combined, they have sold fewer than 15,000 eligible vehicles so far, all by Ford, largely because their hybrids have not impressed buyers. Rather than building highly efficient hybrids like the Prius, Detroit has tinkered with gas guzzlers like the Chevrolet Silverado, adding hybrid technology to them so that they get slightly better mileage.

Come next year, then, the government will pay you to buy a Silverado hybrid (which gets about 16 miles per gallon) or a Ford Escape Hybrid (which gets about 26, according to Consumer Reports), but not a Prius (44) or a non-hybrid Corolla (29).

There is already a gas-guzzler tax written into the law that raises the price of inefficient cars, but not of sport utility vehicles or light trucks, notes Therese Langer of the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy. Making the tax universal would have a far bigger effect than a narrow policy aimed at hybrids, and it could be balanced by tax credits for efficient vehicles of any kind. Google has a nice template: it gives $5,000 to employees who buy a car that gets at least 45 m.p.g. in the government's ratings, a threshold that only the Prius and two Honda hybrids now meet.

I know this might sound like one more nail in Detroit's coffin, but it doesn't have to be one. The Big Three have the engineering expertise to build vehicles that can go a long way on a gallon of gas. If Washington would only nudge people to buy cars like that, Detroit would start making them.

In the mean time, better try and get a Prius now if you want a tax credit. Crazy.

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