Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Can The Modern Electric Car Be Traced To Ronald Reagan?

Published March 14, 2012

By Huw Evans

If a certain view of history is to be believed, then the 40th President of United States, was a linchpin in the push toward sustainable motoring leading right up to the advent of today’s growing electric car segment.

And, if so, it’s quite ironic considering Reagan – who served as president from 1981-89 – is largely held up as a champion of Republican ideals, and many sympathetic to said ideals have demonized cars like the Chevy Volt as symbolic of government policies gone wrong.

But how is Reagan tied into the whole idea of green motoring? Well back when he was governor of California – 1967-75 – Reagan signed legislation that led to the creation of the California Air Resources Board (CARB) – and then consistently defended its right to set de facto policy for autos sold in the U.S.

CARB is largely credited for introducing rules mandating the sale of Zero Emissions Vehicles (ZEVs) in the Golden State (in other words, electric cars). And it’s largely from CARB’s stance that electric cars have been able to flourish in a manner not seen since the early 1900s.

At least this is the thrust of an argument presented by Nobel-prize winning author Daniel Yergin’s book, titled, The Quest: Energy, Security and the Remaking of the Modern World.

In it, he observes that Arie Haagen-Smit, a former Caltech chemistry professor, who is recognized as the "Father of Smog" (research), was appointed by Reagan’s office as CARB’s first chairman in 1968.

As Yergin wrote, Haagen-Smit began seeking ways to combat a problem he’d been dismayed by since the mid-1950s, when he observed, “a dense blue-gray haze ... settled over and suffocated the Los Angeles Basin.” In the worst of those days, LAX would be closed, the author wrote, and kids’ phys-ed and recess periods would be canceled.

On the flip side, Reagan has also been cast as a key antagonist to sustainable mobility, with critics frequently citing the relaxation of Corporate Average Fuel Economy Standards and the de-regulation of the U.S. oil industry during his tenure in the White House.

According to an opinion piece based around Yergin's thesis in The Daily Caller, Reagan serves as a sort of Rorschach test as to whether he was a hero or villain – but there remain plenty of indicators that he was also a key advocate for cleaner air in the early days as well.

“Reagan was definitely strong on environmental protection as governor of California in ways that are often forgotten,” remarked James Strock, who was the first secretary of the California Environmental Protection Agency and later, a White House official during Reagan’s term. “He was always protective as president of CARB’s right to set stricter standards than federal [guidelines]. The automakers had hoped they could get [Reagan] to override [CARB] authority. They were out of luck.”

But to counterbalance the view again, the prospect of subsidies – these and government bailouts have been called serious wrongheadedness by EV opponents more recently – may have been more of a sticking point even to Reagan, according to The Daily Caller. Fairly enough, it noted Strock also said Ronald Reagan, “would be very skeptical of having the government subsidizing making a car – and then subsidizing buying it.”

However, current smearing against the move toward electrification aside, the main point is that electrified powertrains, although yet a budding technology, are morally and ethically neutral. They therefore do not deserve to be castigated as a “political punching bag” as GM CEO Dan Akerson recently told a Republican subcommittee regarding the Volt.

Further, the underlying premise of “energy independence” and “green cars” as represented by electrified vehicles would have still been seen as defensible, even by the now-lionized Ronald Reagan.

So there you have it: Ronald Reagan, like Barack Obama, would have been pro-EV. Still up for debate are the many finer points of how to get there from here.


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