Wheels

An autonomous TT. (Audi photo / March 14, 2013)

Everyone's got an opinion, and that's a fine thing. We're free to disagree. My old friend John DeCicco, a professor at the University of Michigan, basically thinks that electric cars, despite passionate followers, don't deserve to be subsidized (by federal and state governments) because they're not ready for prime time.

EVs, DeCicco says, won't really come into their own until we have self-driving, or autonomous, routinely on the road. "For cars," he says, "the real game changer will be intelligent connectivity. Autonomous capability will liberate consumers from the need to drive."

Tommorow's hands-free auto pilots will be happy with Spartan linked electric network cars, DeCicco says. He thinks that's where the research dollars should go, as well as into better batteries so that the electrics we finally do roll out will have more than 100-mile range.

DeCicco points out, with some justification, that we can reach fuel economy goals with hybrids and high-performing gas cars. "A widespread misconception is that getting EVs on the road is necessary for faster progress in reducing carbon dioxide emissions," he wrote for the Energy Collective. With just regular hybrid cars, he said, "new fleet efficiency can be tripled over the next three decades."

I agree that electric cars are the means to the end, and if we can do it better some other way, by all means. The flaw in DeCicco's reasoning, for me, is the timetable required to make his vision come true. Autonomous cars are in their infancy, and the best we can do now is some limited self-parking and adaptive cruise control, which helps us maintain a distance with the car ahead. Hands-free fleet cars are 15 to 20 years off.

That's a problem because of the imperatives of global warming. If you believe scientists like NASA's Dr. James Hansen, we have to get cars off oil now. He'd love a moratorium on internal combustion, but will settle for a "simple, honest" carbon fee that collects revenue from oil companies "upon the first sale at the mine, wellhead or port of entry."

DeCicco acknowledges this, but thinks our best route to dramatically cutting CO2 emissions is upstream, from power plants and industry that "remain largely unconstrained on carbon. Vehicle electrification can wait until it makes sense for other reasons, which will only happen in a connected transportation world."

I'm all for going after those emissions, and I expect that will happen in the next few years, through White House executive action. Connecticut's own Gina McCarthy, our former environmental commissioner, has now been nominated to head the EPA. I think she'll be a good partner with Obama in taking actions that don't need Congressional approval.

We need self-driving cars, power plant curbs, and EVs, too. I don't think we can unplug the electric car now — it's too far advanced. I'm with The New York Times' Tom Friedman, who wants some kind of Marshall Plan to combat global warming. All hands on deck!