Iran, Electric Cars, and Our Stuck Narrative: Gas-Powered Vehicles Catch Fire 180,000 Times a Year

by Randy Essex, cross-posted from the Rocky Mountain Institute

With Iran threatening to close the Strait of Hormuz, chokepoint for the passage of 17 percent of globally traded oil, this is a good time to introduce myself to Outlet readers. This set of issues—oil addiction and the vehicle-centric, land-abusing society it engenders—has a lot to do with why I joined RMI as editorial director after a 30-year newspaper career.

This week, as an old headline about oil insecurity reappears, I feel mounting frustration about a newer storyline being adopted in my former industry: the supposedly faltering launch of mass-produced electric cars.

These stories, of course, are related, but the media, politicians and the public either don’t see the connection or don’t want to.

Let me step back for a moment to personal history.

Gasoline topped 40 cents a gallon in my hometown on the day I got my driver’s license in January 1974, in the midst of the Arab oil embargo. Over the next few years, I saw a clear connection between U.S. oil dependency and my struggle to gain traction in the economy as oil price spikes drove inflation. The experience led me to study political science and journalism in college and to buy the most fuel-efficient vehicles I could afford.

As a student reporter, probably then driving a Ford Maverick, I first heard of the Strait of Hormuz in about 1979, when I covered a speech by Gerald Ford in which he warned that as Iran’s stability quavered, we would soon learn about the strategic waterway and its vulnerability.

In the intervening decades, despite Amory Lovins changing the energy discussion, despite a range of uneven conservation and efficiency efforts and a loophole-filled set of rules that improved automotive fuel economy, quite obviously not enough has changed. We are again hearing about the Strait of Hormuz as a potential threat to our economic security as Iran reacts to sanctions imposed because of its nuclear program.

Our oil dependency gives erratic leaders money to do things like repress their people, finance terrorism and pursue nuclear weapons. It gives them outsized power to influence the U.S. economy and the very lives of Americans whom we keep sending to war in oil-rich hot spots.

Our national leaders are stuck and our narrative is stuck.

The entirely predictable response to Iran’s threat will be calls for military action and increased domestic oil production.

These decades-old ideas, which have not yet made us secure and leave us to depend on the continued stability of Saudi Arabia, of course do nothing to address the environmental and economic risks of continued fossil fuel dependency. We urgently need a new storyline, such as the Reinventing Fire vision of freeing the U.S. from fossil fuels by 2050, with business leading the way.

Now, the U.S. burns 13 million barrels of oil a day at a cost of $2 billion. That oil dependence also incurs hidden costs totaling roughly $1.5 trillion a year, or 12 percent of GDP.

The only way to avoid these costs is to stop using oil, and RMI research shows a huge potential prize for doing so—the transportation sector alone holds a $3.8 trillion opportunity from oil not needed.

Key to this is the adoption of electric vehicles built with ultrastrong, ultralight materials that enable powertrain reductions and fuel efficiency of up to 240 mpg equivalent.

These approaches, while not easy, offer far lower risks to national security, the economy, the environment and public health.

The benefits transcend party lines—and get us unstuck.

Which brings us to one new story the media are telling that is counterproductive to solving our oil addiction: That the launch of the first mass-market electric cars, the Chevrolet Volt and Nissan Leaf, is fizzling. Under the headline “Are electric cars losing their spark?” USA Today this month focused on Chevy Volt fires that came only in tests and on Volt and Leaf sales falling below projections this year, reaching probably about 17,000 between the two. In naming the Volt one of the big product flops of the year, Yahoo Finance made much the same arguments.

This narrative simply lacks context. Gas-powered vehicles catch fire nearly 200,000 times a year—on the road, not in labs [chart here]. Toyota, which has now sold more than 1 million hybrids in the U.S., sold only about 5,800 of its Prius hybrid to U.S. customers in 2000, the first year it was offered here. Selling 17,000 EVs in the first year may not be so bad.

To be sure, pricy EVs face obstacles to consumer acceptance. So did the car. The Literary Digest (not to be confused with the USA Today of its time), proclaimed in 1899, “The ordinary ‘horseless carriage’ is at present a luxury for the wealthy; and although its price will probably fall in the future, it will never, of course, come into as common use as the bicycle.”

I want to stop buying gas. The patriotic alternatives, with no loss of comfort, safety or convenience, are on the road.

So I see an EV in my future, just as I see EVs becoming as common as hybrids within a few years. But Iran’s latest threat reminds us that we need to go further faster, for example while the Saudi royal family is able to maintain power without direct U.S. military intervention, even as repressive regimes around it collapse.

For my part, I have more faith in a U.S. energy future in which resources from above the ground power homes, industry and EVs than I do in the long-term stability of Saudi Arabia.

Randy Essex is Editorial Director of the Rocky Mountain Institute. This piece was originally published at RMI.


19 Responses to Iran, Electric Cars, and Our Stuck Narrative: Gas-Powered Vehicles Catch Fire 180,000 Times a Year

  1. D. P. Lubic says:

    This is a wonderful editorial.

    I am 56, and I remember the oil shortages and the effects of the oil embargo as well. Your story sounds so familiar to me.

    Let me add that electric cars sound great (and Chevy’s Volt is a pretty little thing), but I would add that it’s note quite enough by itself. We need to bring back passenger rail in all its forms–local trolley lines, suburban or light rail lines, intercity rail, high-speed rail, and even some of the interubans. Cars in general are great, but even the best have limitations in terms of comfort on longer trips, and also limitations in performance, most of which are related to the driver.

    (Hey, how long do you think it will be before we see a T-shirt with “Macular Degenerate” printed on it for the Baby Boomers?)

    A related thing that needs to be addressed: highway finance. Currently, gas taxes only pay perhaps half of what the highway system costs in terms of cash flow, and there are those who suggest even that is generous. Electric cars, since they don’t burn fuel as such and thus don’t pay fuel taxes, exaberate the problem. We need a new road finance model, and like it or not, electric cars or not, it’s going to make at least routine driving more expensive (and as it turns out, it also makes rail more attractive economically).

  2. ryan says:

    any estimation on the EROEI in transferring to electric cars? please include approximate costs for the new “ultra light” materials, the batteries, and the shipping. where do all those materials come from? is it fossil fuels? how do they get transported to and from factories? fossil fuels?

    where does the power come from to charge electric cars? that’s mostly coal in the US isn’t it?

    The myth of renewable energy

    “Unless you’re planning to live without electricity and motorized transportation, you need more than just wind, water, sunlight, and plants for energy. You need raw materials, real estate, and other things that will run out one day. You need stuff that has to be mined, drilled, transported, and bulldozed — not simply harvested or farmed. You need non-renewable resources.”

  3. BBHY says:

    I did not understand that article at all. If we can replace burning coal with sunshine and wind, we should do that.

    I don not see that point in arguing that making solar panels and wind turbine require materials. The amount of CO2 emissions from building those things is probably 1% of the coal plants they replace.

    They seem to be saying that because we can only reduce emissions by 99%, it is not worth doing. Huh?

  4. sarah says:

    See these two papers for a serious fact-based analysis of the potential of renewable sources to cover all global energy needs. Materials needed for solar panels, batteries, etc are reusable; fossil fuels are used once, then become CO2 which is a 1000-year problem.

    Jacobson, M. Z., & Delucchi, M. A. (2011). Providing all global energy with wind, water, and solar power, Part I Technologies, energy resources, quantities and areas of infrastructure, and materials. Energy Policy, 39(3), 1154–1169. doi:10.1016/j.enpol.2010.11.040

    Delucchi, M. A., & Jacobson, M. Z. (2011). Providing all global energy with wind, water, and solar power, Part II Reliability, system and transmission costs, and policies. Energy Policy, 39(3), 1170–1190. doi:10.1016/j.enpol.2010.11.045

  5. Brooks Bridges says:

    Your article made some good points; it was just very narrowly focused.

    You owe it to yourself to read “Reinventing Fire”. It is filled with valuable information on all facets affecting our energy future – coal, nuclear, efficiency, renewables, regulatory, political, demographics, raw materials, etc.

    It’s not perfect but it takes on an incredibly complex issue and does a superb job.

    In particular I like the many examples of businesses achieving enormous reductions in energy use while increasing profits and improving their products.

    This is not a silver bullet problem – someone said it’s more of a silver buckshot problem.

  6. Bill Goedecke says:

    I agree with D.P. Lubic that we need to go with rail transport – we need to eliminate private travel as much as possible. I agree with ryan about how we seem to ignore the underlying resource requirements for ‘renewable energy’. We do seem to have come a long way in our technologies – but, as we know, if everyone drove an electric car, we would need a new grid. And to make it truly sustainable, we need some other way of generating energy in the grid besides natural gas and coal. We need to live differently – we need to eliminate the need for mass private transportation. And I don’t like the term ‘oil addiction’. Oil provides an easily transported carbon (energy) rich fuel – very valuable and useful. We have to stop using it of course, but I don’t denigrate its use giving the physical reality of our infrastructure. We need to change the infrastructure, keeping in mind the challenge of funding changes.

  7. prokaryotes says:

    The SPIEGEL reported that they fixed the issue and production of the european version of the VOLT, the Ampera can take off now.

  8. prokaryotes says:

    THis embargo is a great opportunity to accelerate the transisitiong process to a cleaner economy, based on electricity rather than dirty fuels.

  9. WVhybrid says:

    If you would like to share your opinion (hopefully against) of Rep. Mike Kelly’s bill to kill the tax credit for new electric cars, HR 3768, go to POPVox at:

    If you write a comment on the blog, it will be mailed to your members of Congress.

    This site, POPVox is an interesting exercise in citizenship. Please participate.


  10. fj says:

    Anything positioned to break the fossil fuel transportation monopoly is denigrated: electric cars, bicycles, personal rapid transport (PRT), walking, etc.

    Kodak is going bankrupt. When it first started it gave cameras away for free just to sell film. Maybe cars cost a bit more but it’s the same business model for selling oil; but even better, since it creates the illusion that strong modern economies depend on high-power heavy machine personal transportation and oil; something that China fell hook line and sinker for. Kodak’s bankruptcy probably wouldn’t be happening now if it had been able to prevent or lock up electronic digital imaging technology.

    In the 1950s there was a major scandal when local officials were paid off and the electric buses in NYC were terminated.

    There were major investigations into delivering the U.S. Mail by pneumatic tubes loaded by “Rocketeers” — books were written about it and lots of financials — with a 26-mile system in operation in the early 1900s from Downtown Brooklyn over the Brooklyn Bridge to City Hall and, up to Harlem and back; eventually abandoned to be replaced by street-clogging trucks.

    Actually, electric cars are neat — higher torque (ironically, only electric locomotives have the torque to pull the huge coal trains), fewer moving parts, quiet, no direct emissions, etc.; though the global health crisis caused by the direct violence of cars freaks me out not to mention the structural (indirect) violence going many times further — regarding bicycles and more advanced derivatives, the automotive monopoly is enforced simply by the extreme danger of sharing roads and other public space with cars, trucks, buses, etc.

    Ignore all the myths about things that bicycles and advanced derivatives can’t do, they are the critical path to agile low-cost low environmental impact mobility solutions far beyond automobiles, petro-powered or otherwise; while it’s typical to spend a billion dollars to design, develop and simply bring a new model to market such as the Volkswagen Beetle, nothing has been close to this happening with hybrid human-electric technology for much grander global long-term benefit.

    And, if that 3.6-foot surge from Hurricane Irene had been one foot more to completely knock out the NYC subway system and the city’s stream of $4 billion per day economic activity for about a month, a tipping point of sorts may have been reached rapidly advancing the potential of positively disruptive bicycle technology clearly demonstrated during past transit crises.

    Here’s a simple thought problem: Think of moving China’s population to electric cars including the more than one-half billion cyclists and those that use electric bikes — equivalent to the U.S. per capita car allocation — that would roughly require the same amount of land China currently uses for growing rice; how exactly does that work out?

  11. James Newberry says:

    RE: “Now, the U.S. burns 13 million barrels of oil a day at a cost of $2 billion.”

    I believe the figure is closer to 20 million, so the above as stated may not be correct without a qualifier such as “for transport fuels.”

    As for efficiency in people transport for urban areas, after walk-ability and cycling it would be hard to beat the many benefits of sustainable, self-powered streetcars, which could be newly designed from currently available and synergistically functioning green technologies (vs. the report’s almost exclusive promotion of another billion personal transport machines to further clog the globe’s burdened asphalt jungles).

    Despite this critique, Rocky Mountain Institute does outstanding work.

  12. ryan says:

    there is no “alternative” energy infrastructure in place to provide “clean” energy to produce, recycle, ship, maintain, or repair the “alternative” energy “solutions.” that almost always relies on fossil fuels.

    there are 7 billion people on the planet – about 1 billion of them are driving automobiles. it would take a lot of fossil fuels to replace those with “clean” stuff.

    read – The Renewables Gap: The Political Challenge of Affecting a Societal Transition to Renewable Sources of Energy Revisited

    “Materials needed for solar panels, batteries, etc are reusable;” – in theory, perhaps, in practice, NO. it has to be profitable for companies to recycle that stuff.

    check out the mines where that Nickel for the Prius comes from. “So many plants and trees around the factory at Sudbury in Ontario, Canada, have died that astronauts from Nasa practised driving moon buggies on the outskirts of the city because it was considered the closest thing on earth to the rocky lunar landscape.”

    “…Their ultimate ‘green car’ is the source of some of the worst pollution in North America; it takes more combined energy per Prius to produce than a Hummer.”

    Renewable Energy:
    Economic and Environmental Issues

    – note the original date of publication and consider how much worse things actually are at present then expected. this is a common theme in both energy calculations, environmental surveys, and especially climate change analysis. the global economy is collapsing. war and conflict are erupting across the globe. the climate disasters of 2011 were merely a fraction of what is to come.

    we live on a materially limited, crowded, and increasingly destabilizing planet. those who choose to continue following the myths of resource replacement to support social systems dependent on perpetual growth and extraction of foreign resources incur a substantial moral hazard.

    Geopolitical feedback loops will bring a rapid end to centralized production of most of the materials needed for large scale renewable energy.

    and then there’s those darn geopolitical feedback loops –

    si vis pacem parabellum

  13. fj says:

    Smart electric pickup comes with a built-in Smart electric bike charger. via inhabitat


  14. Gnobuddy says:

    “Sustainable” and “Seven billion humans” simply cannot go together.

    In the four and a half *billion* years of our planets existence, life evolved and clawed its way to existence in every imaginable habitat over the next three billion years or so. Hundreds of millions of species competed to grow and multiply and take advantage of as much of the earth’s resources as it could.

    And yet in all that time, planet Earth has never sustainably fed and housed seven billion organisms that weigh a rough average of 150 lbs/70 kg each. Seven billion bacteria, no problem. One hundred thousand bison, no problem. But seven billion creatures the size of a human being – no way. In three billion years of trying, nature could not find a way to do it.

    And yet that is what the current human population is. Worse, as a species we place heavier demands on our environment than any other; no other creature moves cubic miles of earth to mine non-renewable mineral resources, for instance, or uses water at the prodigious rate at which we do. By rapaciously consuming multiple resources faster than the planet could replenish them, we have built an incredibly tall card-house – seven billion humans tall. But spending money faster than you make it isn’t sustainable – and using up the earths resources far faster than nature replaces them isn’t any more sustainable.

    We can wriggle around on the fish hook as much as we like, but the bottom line is that no way, no how can the earth remain in anything approaching its natural state while simultaneously *sustainably* supporting the enormous biomass of seven billion human beings.

    That means sooner or later either our population must come down dramatically, or the entire earth must be turned into an enormous farm to feed us, meaning the quality of our environment comes down dramatically. (The latter option isn’t really an option, especially with earth balanced on the brink of climate change catastrophe.)

    As a species we seem incapable of taking down our own house of cards (I don’t see billions of couples volunteering not to have any kids). But the house of cards cannot keep growing, and collapse in one form or another is inevitable. The only real questions are “When?” and “How bad?”


  15. J4zonian says:


    Yes, everything we do has effects. But the lifetime effects of a Prius are monumentally less than those of a Humvee. The next generation of transportation forms, if we do it right and don’t allow ourselves to be deterred by despairing, unimaginative, or addicted people, will be monumentally better than the Prius. You speak as though we can’t build cleaner infrastructure and as though we can’t build a solar panel from electricity generated by solar panels. You speak as though it’s impossible to put solar panels on urban and suburban roofs or over parking lots or in the surface of roads or improve the efficiency and ecological effects of new technologies. You speak as though it’s impossible to change the laws or the economics to increase reduction, reuse and recycling. You say “there are 7 billion people…” as if that number alone means it’s hopeless, without any context, without specifying level of technology, equality, potential improvement or actual assessment of needs vs. resources. And you speak of Nigeria as if it’s not an incredibly repressive oil-dominated, US-devastated example of exactly what we can do away with if we move toward renewables in a wise and connected context, of ecological awareness, local, radically-democratic government, and the meeting of real physical and emotional needs for all.

    “Solar energy technologies, paired with energy conservation, have the potential to meet a large portion of future US energy needs” is the first sentence of the article you referred to, from 1994, before the revolutionary improvements in those technologies we see being developed and deployed today. It seems to argue against your whole point, which confuses me. Don’t you agree with it?

    You’re essentially saying renewables are not what we’ve had all along so renewables will either never happen or will be no good. That is a fantastically ignorant and self-and world-destructive view. It is also not based on social, scientific, economic or ecological facts but apparently on personal psychological history.

    You seem far more interested in attacking renewables than in looking at all the facts in context or coming up with solutions. Why?

    I understand people who feel despair, although I empathize a lot more with those who feel it out of intelligence and knowledge rather than wild speculation, false rumors, limited imaginations and lies (whether theirs or others’). But that’s no excuse for people to try to infect others with it rather than deal with it where it should be, which is in therapy.

  16. J4zonian says:

    and by the way, those who prepare for war get war in return far more than they get peace. If you want peace, it makes more sense to live peacefully.

  17. J4zonian says:


    You provide no evidence that the current or even higher population is unsustainable, and you leave out all the assumptions you make that bring you to your conclusion that it is. Level of technology, equality, etc. are all variables we have some control over that make your conclusion suspect at best. There is enough space, food, water, metal, wood, earth etc. for all if we use it wisely and in fairness and equality. When you say “we” have built… a card-house, what you mean is SOME have. The rich have. (which includes us). You name problems and associate them with our numbers, when most people on Earth have nothing to do with the high consumption levels causing those problems.

    Some people have been saying “7 billion” along with various predictions and images of imminent doom so much recently that many have been completely bamboozled. The oil and coal companies and far right love it, because it takes peoples’ attention away from the real problem, which is overwhelmingly the consumption of the rich. Although high and growing population makes many problems, including climate, worse, population is neither the problem nor the solution to climate. We CAN survive with more than 7 billion and we can’t possibly peacefully reduce the population fast enough to have any significant effect on climate catastrophe.

    Apparently you missed the billions of couples since the 1960s who have had fewer and fewer children, and the potential for a relatively small investment properly applied to reduce growth rates even faster. The ways to do that are to fund contraception accessibility for all, foment equality, financial security in age, sickness and hard times, and the empowerment of all, especially women. But again, it will have only a small effect on our climate problem, since the poorest half of humanity causes only about 7% of GHGs.

    I don’t know if there have been 7 billion megafauna on Earth at one time before. I suspect there have been. The figures you throw in almost randomly are way off; there are now 5 times as many bison as you say, and were probably more than 25 million in the past–at the same time there were huge herds of wildebeest and other terrestrial megafauna by the hundreds of millions at least, plus whales and fish of enormous size, variety and numbers and uncountable numbers of medium-sized creatures. I don’t know exactly what the point of your irrelevant associations is but they have little to do with the problem at hand. If we solve the climate crisis it will be by healing the addictions of the rich.

  18. J4zonian says:

    One addition I feel the need to make: the bison, the buffalo, the wildebeest, the deer and antelope and aurochs and sheep and goats and geese and gazelles and tapirs and camelids and yaks and ‘roos and elephants and the vast overwhelming majority of those possibly 7 billion megafauna and medifauna—vegetarians.