Wednesday, May 31, 2006

As Toyota Goes ...

June 17, 2005

So I have a question: If I am rooting for General Motors to go bankrupt and
be bought out by Toyota, does that make me a bad person?

It is not that I want any autoworker to lose his or her job, but I
certainly would not put on a black tie if the entire management team at
G.M. got sacked and was replaced by executives from Toyota. Indeed, I think
the only hope for G.M.'s autoworkers, and maybe even our country, is with
Toyota. Because let's face it, as Toyota goes, so goes America.

Having Toyota take over General Motors - which based its business strategy
on building gas-guzzling cars, including the idiot Hummer, scoffing at
hybrid technology and fighting Congressional efforts to impose higher
mileage standards on U.S. automakers - would not only be in America's
economic interest, it would also be in America's geopolitical interest.

Because Toyota has pioneered the very hybrid engine technology that can
help rescue not only our economy from its oil addiction (how about 500
miles per gallon of gasoline?), but also our foreign policy from dependence
on Middle Eastern oil autocrats.

Diffusing Toyota's hybrid technology is one of the keys to what I call
"geo-green." Geo-greens seek to combine into a single political movement
environmentalists who want to reduce fossil fuels that cause climate
change, evangelicals who want to protect God's green earth and all his
creations, and geo-strategists who want to reduce our dependence on crude
oil because it fuels some of the worst regimes in the world.

The Bush team has been M.I.A. on energy since 9/11. Indeed, the utter
indifference of the Bush team to developing a geo-green strategy - which
would also strengthen the dollar, reduce our trade deficit, make America
the world leader in combating climate change and stimulate U.S. companies
to take the lead in producing the green technologies that the world will
desperately need as China and India industrialize - is so irresponsible
that it takes your breath away. This is especially true when you realize
that the solutions to our problems are already here.

As Gal Luft, co-chairman of the Set America Free coalition, a bipartisan
alliance of national security, labor, environmental and religious groups
that believe reducing oil consumption is a national priority, points out:
the majority of U.S. oil imports go to fueling the transport sector -
primarily cars and trucks. Therefore, the key to reducing our dependence on
foreign oil is powering our cars and trucks with less petroleum.

There are two ways we can do that. One is electricity. We don't import
electricity. We generate all of our needs with coal, hydropower, nuclear
power and natural gas. Toyota's hybrid cars, like the Prius, run on both
gasoline and electricity that is generated by braking and then stored in a
small battery. But, says Luft, if you had a hybrid that you could plug in
at night, the battery could store up 20 miles of driving per day. So your
first 20 miles would be covered by the battery. The gasoline would only
kick in after that. Since 50 percent of Americans do not drive more than 20
miles a day, the battery power would cover all their driving. Even if they
drove more than that, combining the battery power and the gasoline could
give them 100 miles per gallon of gasoline used, Luft notes.

Right now Toyota does not sell plug-in hybrids. Some enthusiasts, though,
are using kits to convert their hybrids to plug-ins, but that adds several
thousand dollars - and you lose your Toyota warranty. Imagine, though, if
the government encouraged, through tax policy and other incentives, every
automaker to offer plug-in hybrids? We would quickly move down the
innovation curve and end up with better and cheaper plug-ins for all.

Then add to that flexible-fuel cars, which have a special chip and fuel
line that enable them to burn alcohol (ethanol or methanol), gasoline or
any mixture of the two. Some four million U.S. cars already come equipped
this way, including from G.M. It costs only about $100 a car to make it
flex-fuel ready. Brazil hopes to have all its new cars flex-fuel ready by
2008. As Luft notes, if you combined a plug-in hybrid system with a
flex-fuel system that burns 80 percent alcohol and 20 percent gasoline, you
could end up stretching each gallon of gasoline up to 500 miles.

In short, we don't need to reinvent the wheel or wait for sci-fi hydrogen
fuel cells. The technologies we need for a stronger, more energy
independent America are already here. The only thing we have a shortage of
now are leaders with the imagination and will to move the country onto a
geo-green path.

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