Ed Wallace

Evolution of an auto news story

Ed Wallace
Ed Wallace

As these things go, it wasn’t really that big a story, but it got big. The July 5th Wall Street Journal and other publications carried the news that, starting in 2019, Volvo will sell only electric or hybrid-electric cars. But, while the WSJ headline had the overall story right, that article’s very first line read, “For Volvo the internal combustion engine has run its course.”

From there the column lurched between overstatement and correction. By the third paragraph it stated flatly that “Volvo is the first major automaker to abandon the technology that has powered the industry for more than a century.” Then it flipped to the far more accurate statement, “The move marks the end of the solely combustion engine-powered car.”

As someone who spends the majority of the day reading, I’m often amazed at how one story, such as this Volvo article, is written, and then rewritten and rewritten again by other media outlets until, 24 hours later, what began as a cautious story can evolve into something different. In the case of the Volvo story, by that afternoon the Phoenix Business Journal was saying, “Volvo Signals End of the Internal Combustion Engine.” The Verge, meanwhile, would write, “Volvo to End Gas-Only Cars by 2019.” In England The Independent turned that into “Volvo to Make Only Electric Cars from 2019,” while Reuters wrapped it up a day later with “Geely’s Volvo to Go All Electric with New Models from 2019.”

But, in fact, none of that is true as laid out for the reader. Even the very first story is a bit of an overstatement. True, Volvo said it will deliver electric cars, but so have virtually all of the world’s major automakers. However, most hybrid electric cars are powered primarily by gasoline — using an internal combustion engine.

The fact is that, for most hybrid vehicles on the market today, the electrical component is a modification of the internal combustion engine designed solely to improve the fuel efficiency. Most are not electric cars with a gas-powered engine backup playing second fiddle in the propulsion. True, that’s how a Chevy Volt works, and the BMW i3 with its range extender, too; but even the exceptional Toyota Prius is a gas-powered car first with an electrical component that vastly improves the fuel efficiency. In reality, by the 2020 model year (which starts in 2019), Volvo is going to make a very few electric cars and mostly hybrid electrics, which will use internal combustion engines.

Furthermore, that story started with some sense of balance, but by the next day it had moved from automotive hype to incorrect certainty. In reality this happens all the time.

Maybe everyone got carried away with the Volvo story because at almost the same time reports came out of France’s announcement that it would ban the sale of all gasoline- and diesel-powered engines by 2040. Of course, that story mentioned the Volvo announcement, but it also pointed out that Norway will ban the sale of all vehicles other than electric or hybrid electric by 2025, while India will allow only electric car sales by 2030 and the Netherlands is contemplating a ban on vehicles that use fossil fuels on Norway’s time frame.

Here’s where reasonable caution should play a role. Just 12 years ago we were informed that oil was already into peak production; demand would continue to rise as oil flows fell; and by now, they claimed, we would be paying up to $250 a barrel for oil and $10 a gallon for gasoline. That prediction was a bit off, wasn’t it? The point is that reporting on alleged facts that won’t take place for a decade or more in the future is chancy at best.

One has to assume that, decades in the future, the wealth of any given country will not have fallen dramatically, so sales of new conventional vehicles should continue reasonably strong. Likewise, if the price of oil continues to set near-record historical lows, it’s probably going to be very difficult to force the public into other forms of transportation. After all, just before those two stories broke — that Volvo is going to mark the end of the days of the internal combustion engine and, if it doesn’t, then countries like France will outlaw them — came the June new car sales report.

Turns out that June sales of the most fuel-efficient cars in America fell with the 3 percent decline in overall new car sales. However, vehicles like the Ford Explorer, Jeep Grand Cherokee and Toyota Highlander all posted sales increases of over 20 percent — the Toyota, almost 30 percent. As a group, actual car sales are down 11.4 percent year to date, while trucks are up 4.2 percent and the SUV-Crossover market is up 5.4 percent. So, while some are reporting that the car market is slowing down, that’s taken to mean all new vehicle sales; but in this case it’s the literal truth. Car sales are slowing down this year, but anything other than a car is retailing just fine, thank you very much. Oh, and such vehicles do not lend themselves to electric or even hybrid electric propulsion.

Then came the story that we thought was already over. On July 5th, the Washington Post carried a column explaining why climate change isn’t working the way we’ve been told: According to this story, the predictions made by computer modeling aren’t being borne out in nature. Why, this article even quotes Piers Forster, a climate scientist at the University of Leeds, who said, “The study does beg the question of how we can be so sure the slow climate mode will actually develop as it does in the model, (Southern Ocean and eastern Pacific) since humans have yet to really observe it in nature.” That’s right, Forster is pointing out that our climate models are relying on assumptions that have not yet unfolded in nature in large parts of the world.

Funny, I thought this was all “settled science.” But this new study posted at Science Advances gives everyone in that business cover, for a while; it claims that certain areas of the planet will feel the effects of climate change much faster than others. That would be the landmasses in the northern latitudes, while the southern regions will warm later because the southern oceans are deeper and colder, and so on. It wouldn’t be so bad if, two days later, the British Independent hadn’t run a story calling Palau “in the front line of climate change in the South Pacific;” and if, some time in the past month, there hadn’t been numerous stories about the Great Barrier Reef’s dying because of climate change. Two critical pieces of news that seem to directly contradict this new study in Science Advances, which claims that warming hasn’t quite shown up in the southern oceans and regions yet.

For what it’s worth, Cristian Proistosescu, the Harvard grad student who conducted this climate research, was quoted in the Washington Post as saying, “We needed to understand why our different estimates didn’t work.” Meaning climate sensitivity or the effects of climate change.

Climate science is, however, apparently unsettled. Just 5 days later the same reporter covered another study, this time published in the journal Nature Geoscience, which postulates that “warmer than usual springtime temperatures in the Arctic Ocean are followed by colder than usual temperatures across much of North America, as well as a reduction in the precipitation in some parts of the southern United States.”

That’s right, one study covered on July 5th claims the landmass of the North Hemisphere has felt the effects of warming much quicker than the southern region, although many of the climate models’ conclusions just aren’t happening at all. (But they will in time, so please be patient.) Then the next study says that the North American landmass cools down when it’s warmer up in the Arctic. The gist of the last column is that it might get cool enough to affect agriculture. Then again, this week David Wallace-Wells at New York magazine painted climate change as the real end of the world for all of us.

Apparently, he didn’t read the story that Volvo is going to all electric cars in the future.

Oh and then that iceberg the size of Delaware broke off from the Antarctic shelf on Wednesday. After weeks of concern that this would happen, along with dire warnings that climate change was responsible, now a new story appears. Turns out that Ted Scambos, lead scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Colorado, was quoted at BuzzFeed as saying, “The calving event has the appearance of being a completely normal break of the ice shelf.” Then he added that this is normal for this region of the world, although it leaves the ice shelf smaller than its been in 125 years. Scambos believes it will simply regrow to its former size.

Automotive stories combining hype with speculation can morph into certainty the next day, though none of the underlying facts have changed. Meanwhile, countries claim firmly that they will ban cars using internal combustion engines anywhere from eight to 23 years from now, unless of course that doesn’t happen, either.

And climate change, that settled science of absolute certainty, becomes less absolute with yet another published study that everyone is cheering about. Mark my words, though: This time next week, that story and column will be long forgotten and global warming will have become a certainty yet again.

Note from Ed: For the record I do believe in climate change. I’m simply pointing out that on a daily basis scientists deliver statements that often contradict other climatologists and past predictions.

© Ed Wallace 2017

Ed Wallace is a recipient of the Gerald R. Loeb Award for business journalism, bestowed by the Anderson School of Business at UCLA, and hosts the top-rated talk show, Wheels, 8:00 to 1:00 Saturdays on 570 KLIF AM. Email: edwallace570@gmail.com