Oliphant and Washington Post ignorantly smear GM and plug-in hybrids

[I think this is worthy of another email campaign — this time to the Post (see below).]

There’s nothing wrong with mocking GM. It is a target-rich environment that has gone the extra mile and painted a bunch of bull’s-eyes on itself (see General Motors is full of crocks and GM’s Lutz: Wagoner is one of “the innocents,” just “the mayor of a city hit by an earthquake”).

To fire at GM and hit yourself instead thus requires a special kind of ignorance, as both cartoonist Pat Oliphant and the Washington Post exhibited Saturday when they ran this staggeringly ill-informed cartoon:

This easily wins the 2008 award for the most unintentionally laughable cartoon of 2008. The cartoon mocks GM for designing a car that solves the very problem the cartoon claims it does not address.

The idea that a major media outlet could publish such a cartoon in the internet era is almost incomprehensible and really tells you a lot about why the print media is dying a long-deserved death.

I do think this cartoon should represent a mini-wake-up call to plug in hybrid advocates [note to self: this means you] — every time you discuss plug ins, you must be 100% clear the vehicles revert to being gasoline-powered after they exhaust their charge from the electric grid.

But that is not to excuse the supreme laziness of both Oliphant and the Post:

First, how is it possible Oliphant managed to learn enough about GM’s Volt to know that it has an all-electric range of 40 miles — but failed to notice that the car still has a gasoline engine to run the car when the battery has discharged? [Snarky answer: Perhaps he only gets his news from the Washington Post (see below).]

This mistake is so embarrassing that I think Oliphant — ” the most widely syndicated political cartoonist in the world” who has also been called “the most influential cartoonist now working” by The New York Times — should issue an apology or some sort of retraction cartoon.

I can’t find an email — but his official page is here. The comments on this cartoon will not reassure anyone that plug-in advocates (and the media) have done a good job explaining what the vehicle does.

Second, does not a single person associated with the Washington Post editorial page actually read their own newspaper, which has published countless stories on the the Volt? Maybe that tells you all you need to know about print media these days — although the stories aren’t actually that informative (see below). The Post actually ran a letter to the editor by Nobel laureate Burton Richter a couple of weeks ago on plugs in. And the Post‘s editors themselves wrote an editorial on the Volt back in October (criticizing the tax credits in the bailout bill).

Toles is the Post‘s regular political cartoonist, so I believe the publication of this Oliphant cartoon Saturday was purely a choice by the paper’s editorial page editors — although somebody may know different.Certainly the Post should publish both a retraction statement and one or more letters to the editor. I suggest bombarding them with short, intelligent letters here: You can read their letters policy here.

Since the Post is unlikely to publish a letter by somebody who isn’t an expert on plug ins, you might also consider writing a letter to the Ombudsman, Deborah Howell (yes, the paper still calls her a “man” — sue them, not me!). If she receives enough letters questioning the Post’s decision to run this cartoon, she might write a column. You can reach her by e-mail at or by phone at 202-334-7582.

Note 1: The Post is so lame internet-wise that if you are reading their editorial — “Congress approved $7,500 tax credits for purchasers of GM’s much-touted plug-in hybrid Chevy Volt, built to run 40 miles on a single electric charge” — and click on the link, you’ll find “No results” unless you click again for “More search results.” Then you’ll find articles like the recent “The Car of the Future — but at What Cost?

Note 2: The Post editorial does not explain to you how the Volt or any plug in works (and would in fact be quite misleading to a general reader). Nor does the recent article. Nor does the Richter letter, really.
The bottom line for advocates: Yes, this is still the car of the very near-future (see “Plug-in hybrids and electric cars — a core climate solution“) — but many well-informed people obviously remain quite confused about what a plug in does. We all need to work on that.

TWIMC: Plug in hybrids revert to being gasoline-powered vehicles after their initial battery charge runs out. Until they are charged again on the electric grid, they can still run on gasoline and be refueled quickly at a gas station like any other car.

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21 Responses to Oliphant and Washington Post ignorantly smear GM and plug-in hybrids

  1. TomG says:

    Incredibly stupid cartoon.
    Far too many people are headline/sportspage readers and they will believe this cartoon to be some sort of basic truth.
    The only problem I see with the Volt is its price.
    Perhaps the price could qualify for a cartoon, but not the car!

  2. What is the thinking on the Aptera? It’s been my dream car for awhile now and is supposed to be coming out by 2010. I’ll probably get that or the Prius PIEH when I finally get sick of riding my bike everywhere.

    I too worry about people taking the cartoon the wrong way, although I have no problem taking shots at GM. They have earned what they have coming their way. Who needs Detroit and their Hummers anyways when we have the start-ups in California? Let the “medium 3” burn, take all of their unemployed workers and train them to make wind turbines, and have America buy its cars from Aptera and Tesla!

  3. Arthur Smith says:

    Oh come on, Joe, it’s a cartoon! Is the Volt for sale yet? No. and there are real questions about pricing. The car here isn’t labeled the Volt, just GM. Really, how many times has GM disappointed us in the past? Did you ever own a Saturn?

    I find the cartoon hilarious, and I’m hopeful about the Volt. Relax and have a sense of humor. That’s what should distinguish us from conservatives!

  4. Joe says:


    Wow! I am stunned you could say something like this. This cartoon has nothing to do about whether the Volt is for sale or what it would cost.

    The entire purpose of the cartoon is to mock GM for thinking anybody would be interested in a pure electric car with a range of 40 miles — which is not only not the car GM says it is going to build, it is too address that specific flaw that the volt has a gasoline engine.

    The Volt’s only raison d’être is to combine the benefit of doing most of your driving as an electric car over short distances with the benefit of having a gasoline engine so you don’t have to worry about the electric cord.

    If the cartoon had come from a conservative as an active piece of disinformation, that would be one thing. But it is going to confuse hundreds of thousands of people.

    I find it mind-boggling that anybody who understands plug ins would spend even a few seconds defending this cartoon.

  5. Bob Wallace says:

    R for C –

    OK, let’s kill Detroit. Great idea.

    Then we’ll build huge amounts of manufacturing capability in California.

    That makes so much more sense than morphing Detroit from making the cars we wanted to making the cars we are going to want.

  6. Mark Shapiro says:

    Joe –

    I’m not nearly as exercised about this as I am about the latest Inhofe smear that you discussed at:

    and it is just a cartoon, but with much broader reach than Inhofe. You are right that it reflects amazing ignorance at the Post. Worse, it perpetuates the ignorance. The saddest news, there is an ocean of ignorance out there, about both climate change AND the solutions. So keep on educatin’.

    But when you fulminate to the Post and Oliphant about a cartoon, try to use humor. It’s hard, but necessary to avoid looking like a crank (which I find myself doing too often.)

  7. Andy Frank says:

    Joe is right:

    The cartoon is the result of the GM advertising campaign which claims the Volt is an electric car for the first 40 miles. I always said this is a mistake since it confuses the general public and gives the wrong impression as the cartoon illustrates.

    This is why we, years ago, called cars like the Volt a Plug-In hybrid Vehicle or PHEV. But there are more implications to the PHEV versus an extended Range Electric Vehicle or EREV. One of the subtle differences is the a PHEV is designed to operate as a pure EV only below a threshold speed and and a range measured on the EPA city driving cycle. Whereas the Volt has tried to design to higher speed and performance standards resulting in an expensive and difficult car to build.

    Including their claim of 40 miles on electricity only cannot be shown to be true unless they limit the speed and performance. Of course they have not consulted me even though I have offered my experience and help many times.

    Joe, maybe this cartoon will wake up the people at GM as well as raise the confusion level with the public so it will require new thinking in the public’s mind and the Car companies’ mind!!


    [JR: Let’s hope so. Ever the optimist, Andy, you are assuming that the car companies have a mind.

    Andy Frank, is, of course, the father of the plug-in hybrid, and my coauthor on the 2006 Scientific American article, “Hybrid vehicles gain traction.”]

  8. darth says:

    i left a comment on the comics page, but there are only a few comments so doesn’t look like much readership. also you have to register and all that crap to comment – bleh!

  9. Dill Weed says:

    Joe… Joe…,

    Ease up. Inhale… there…

    It’s not like he’s twisting the heads off kittens.

    Dill Weed

  10. Jim Bullis says:

    Andy Frank,

    I agree there is a real need for us to wake up.

    This cartoon ranks with the gibberish painted on many PHEVs saying “100 MPG +”. How can we expect intelligent analysis when such labels are tolerated. We know “100 MPG+” is gibberish since it could just as easily be “10000 MPG+” or “40 MPG+” painted on the self same car.

    It takes a little more thought to realize that all the talk of solar power, wind power, and batteries, wonderful as these things could be in the future, is just a bit pre-mature, and the reality is that on a National basis, coal will be the source of energy for every kW of electric power for many years to come. Californians tend to get confused by CA state policies that seem to say otherwise.

    It is currently stated that PGE gets very little power from coal and quite a lot from natural gas. I think there is a clear case that we have set up an anomaly which works while natural gas prices are low, but these prices are only low because most of the country uses mostly coal, and thus does not put upward pressure on natural gas prices.

    Thus there is very little redeeming social value in stuffing an electric motor and batteries in the Volt or any other Detroit product, unless a concerted effort is concurrently made to drastically improve efficiency.

    So the right cartoon should show a trailer full of coal dragging along behind the GM car.

  11. Arthur Smith says:

    Perhaps the issue is how one interprets this cartoon. Joe and some others think it’s about the Volt. To me, the label “new electric car” and the comments about innovation are clearly pointing to what the cartoonist thinks GM might do *instead of* the Volt. Why don’t you ask Oliphant what the intention was? To me it’s clearly not about PHEV’s at all, rather about the sorry state of what passes for innovation with US carmakers. As such, it touches on a deep truth, and so is genuinely funny to anybody familiar with past episodes of US carmaker “innovation”.

  12. Bob Wallace,
    I know it’s not the best situation, but it’s the situation we’re in. The big three put themselves into this position with their short-sighted and flawed business plans. Why prop them up when we have companies like Aptera on the CUTTING EDGE who aren’t going to receive a dime from the government?

    The job losses Michigan and the NE will experience will simply be structural unemployment as we move into the green age. The age of the Hummer, Expedition, and Suburban is over.

  13. paulm says:

    The market is going to have to jump straight to EVs – Long distances take the bus or train.

    Nice car or what. Why buy hybrid when you can buy this. …mini e.

    car boasts a 150 mile range off its 35 kWh lithium-ion battery pack, can hit 62 mph in 8.5 seconds, and does a full charge off of an included high current charging station in a mere 2.5 hours.

  14. paulm says:

    Interesting interview…we have no time for hybrids now…

    (BTW, Saudi Arabia is lying about its current oil reserves)

    When will the oil run out?
    George Monbiot puts the question to Fatih Birol, chief economist of the International Energy Agency – and is both astonished and alarmed by the answer

    In its 2007 World Energy Outlook, the IEA predicted a rate of decline in output from the world’s existing oilfields of 3.7% a year. This, it said, presented a short-term challenge, with the possibility of a temporary supply crunch in 2015, but with sufficient investment any shortfall could be covered. But the new report, published last month, carried a very different message: a projected rate of decline of 6.7%, which means a much greater gap to fill.

    “In terms of non-Opec [countries outside the big oil producers’ cartel],” he replied, “we are expecting that in three, four years’ time the production of conventional oil will come to a plateau, and start to decline.

    In terms of the global picture, assuming that Opec will invest in a timely manner, global conventional oil can still continue, but we still expect that it will come around 2020 to a plateau as well, which is, of course, not good news from a global-oil-supply point of view.”

  15. John W says:

    Do you think maybe Oliphant was being…ironic? Like, this is the GM version of ingenuity and innovation? Hmmm…

  16. Papertiger says:

    This reminds me I have about a mile of christmas lights to unravel.

  17. paulm says:

    Obama Taking Train To Inauguration to save the planet!

  18. “Railcar One” anyone?

  19. Make them make durable cars.

    Did anybody notice how Diamler-Benz bought out Chrysler so they could ruin the Dodge Diesel? At 165 to 185 horsepower, that engine was medium duty, meaning it would go about 400,000 miles. Dr. Z offered it in a choice of horsepowers, knowing that the average consumer is stupid enough to think that more horsepower means heavier duty. The end result is that Dodge makes that engine put out 325 horsepower, making it LIGHT duty, meaning that it will be worn out in only 100,000 miles. It won’t do you any good to try to get less horsepower out of it by staying off the gas pedal. When the peak horsepower goes up, so does the idle horsepower. Now that the Dodge diesel is ruined, Diamler-Benz sold Chrysler. There is a Mack truck near here with 1.7 Million miles on without an overhaul. Mack doesn’t make them that way any more because the drivers wanted more “efficiency.” There is no possible way to make a heavy duty engine out of a medium duty engine. If you want a car that will go a million miles, buy an SAE Class 8 truck, like the tractor part of an 18 wheeler. To get insurance, you will have to put a camper on it so you can register it as a motorhome. There is no engineering reason why cars can’t go a million miles between overhauls. It is purely that management won’t allow it. It shouldn’t cost more than 10% to 15% to make cars last 400,000 miles instead of 100,000 miles. All you have to do is let the engineers follow the SEA Class 6 reliability standards.

  20. John Smithson says:

    Joe, I can’t believe that you worry that this cartoon misrepresents the Chevy Volt. Get a grip, man. You’re taking yourself way too seriously. People like me are going to think you are a crank.

    [JR: Somehow, I suspect people like you all thought that already.]

  21. John Smithson says:

    I didn’t but I now do.