Chicken and egg scenario: auto capabilities wasted

In the last decade, U.S. auto manufacturers have built and sold millions of vehicles that have “flex fuel” capability — that is, they can burn not only regular gasoline but also combination ethanol-gasoline fuels.

Most of the people who own these vehicles likely don't even know it, unless they happened to spot inconspicuous verbiage in their owner's manual.

And even if they knew, it would matter nary a bit because in most of this country there's no place to buy the stuff. Outside a few Midwest states, where the bulk of the ethanol/E-85 fuel production is located, owners of flex fuel vehicles are still slaves to Big Oil.

States with major metropolitan areas and 50,000 or more flex fuel vehicles registered have not one single station selling E-85 fuel. In the entire United States, less than 500 of the 176,000 stations are selling E-85.

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The United States has the capability to produce many millions of gallons more ethanol than the current 4 billion being manufactured and all auto makers, domestic and foreign, can crank out flex fuel vehicles with no sweat (and usually at no additional cost).

Yet, no concentrated effort is being made to mandate moves that could result in reducing this country's dependence on imported oil.

In Brazil, where gasoline prices are in the neighborhood of $4 per gallon, owners of flex fuel cars can fill their tanks for about half that amount.

Brazil, brought to its knees by the Arab oil embargo in the 1970s, did what no other country in the world has done so dramatically — it mandated development of an ethanol industry and vehicles that would run on ethanol-based fuels.

Today, it has nearly 30,000 stations that sell not only gasoline, but pure alcohol, and combinations thereof; more than 40 percent of all the fuel Brazilians pump into their vehicles is ethanol. It is a government requirement that all fuel sold in the country be at least 25 percent ethanol.

Within a few years, Brazil expects to be self-sufficient in fuel production, while the United States bumbles along, subject to the whims of OPEC and other forces beyond its control.

Of the flex fuel-capable vehicles being manufactured in the United States, only General Motors is even bothering to make buyers aware of that capability by using yellow gas cap fillers. Ford has produced hundreds of thousands of flex fuel vehicles, but the only way you'll ever know if yours is one of them is to pore through your owner's manual.

So, why the chicken-and-egg scenario of manufacturing flex fuel vehicles when an infinitesimally small number will ever have access to E-85 fuel before they end up in the junkyard?

In another of those government ironies, a 1988 law says that companies building flex fuel vehicles can then be rewarded by being allowed to make all their other vehicles less fuel efficient.

So, build a few million flex fuel vehicles that won't ever use flex fuels, and you get a pass to crank out more Hummers, SUVs, and other gas guzzlers.

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