It's amazing how many otherwise intelligent folks believe auto makers and Big Oil are best friends and involved in a grand conspiracy.
Never mind that the two are constantly at odds and pretty much hate each other, and never mind that major oil companies are the most profitable corporations in history while the Detroit Three are all broke. The conspiracy theorists still insist they are in cahoots.
Whether they are writing on some blog or sitting next to you on an airplane, they speak with conviction about how oil companies “and their buddies, the auto makers” are colluding to ensure we are forever dependent on petroleum.
That simply isn't true. As November's crucial election grows closer, and slick disinformation campaigns from all sides take to the airwaves and blogosphere, it is crucial for auto makers to set the record straight, both for so-called low-information voters and low-information candidates.
The latest distraction is Texas oilman T. Boone Pickens' plan to power almost 40% of light vehicles with compressed natural gas (CNG).
Under the guise of eliminating our dependence on foreign oil by using U.S. wind power to generate electricity, thus freeing up natural gas for use in transportation, Pickens actually is campaigning to perpetuate our addiction to fossil fuels and stealthily undermining biofuels such as E85 at the same time.
E85, an 85:15 ethanol/gasoline blend, is a renewable fuel that's more practical than CNG and backed by auto makers but shunned by the oil industry.
In a nutshell, Pickens wants to shift more costs to auto makers and consumers so he can sell more natural gas.
The Honda Civic GX — the only production CNG-powered light vehicle in the U.S. — has all the disadvantages of flex-fuel E85 vehicles and none of the benefits.
Both suffer from limited range and an inadequate refueling infrastructure, but the cost premium for the CNG fuel system on the Honda is about $8,000 vs. $300 for E85 flex-fuel technology.
What's more, the high-pressure fuel tank eats up most of the car's trunk space. And, most importantly, if you run out of fuel in a CNG vehicle, you are out of luck. With flex-fuel capability, you can fill up with regular gasoline anytime.
CNG has its place as a clean fuel for big commercial fleet vehicles such as buses and garbage trucks. In fact, about one in five city buses today are powered by CNG.
But Chrysler, Ford and General Motors already have produced more than 7 million vehicles that can run on E85 and have committed to make 50% of their light vehicles E85-compatible by 2012 if the alternative fuel becomes more widely available.
Echoing many auto executives, Fisker Automotive Inc. board member and former BMW executive Vic Doolan says that if auto makers must engineer their fleets to meet a 35-mpg (6.7 L/100 km) performance bogey by 2020, as required by the federal government's corporate average fuel economy mandate, oil companies should be compelled to install E85 pumps wherever there are diesel pumps.
“The real problem is there are no (E85) pumps,” he said. “(Oil companies) have got to play their part.”
The conspiracy theorists are wrong. There is a huge gulf between auto makers and oil companies. Auto makers already are driving the alternative fuel bandwagon. It's time for oilmen to truly start thinking beyond petroleum and get on board.
Drew Winter is editor of WardsAuto World magazine.