TIME cars

Feast Your Eyes on Tesla’s Powerful New Car

The base price is $120,000

HAWTHORNE, Calif. (AP) — Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk unveiled a new version of the luxury electric car maker’s Model S sedan that includes all-wheel drive and self-driving “auto pilot” features.

The open-to-the-public event Thursday night included free alcohol and test rides on an airport tarmac.

With more than 1,000 Tesla fans in the audience, Musk explained that the current Model S is a rear-wheel-drive car with one motor, but a new version will have two motors — one powering the front wheels and one powering the rear wheels.

All-wheel drive helps grip slippery roads and is standard on many luxury sedans. Analysts have said Tesla needed it to boost sales in the Northeast and Midwest, as well as Europe.

The company sold 13,850 cars in the U.S. this year through September, down 3 percent from a year ago, according to Autodata Corp.

Unlike all-wheel-drive systems on gas-powered cars, Tesla’s system improves speed, acceleration and mileage by optimizing which motor is used, Musk said.

The dual motor version of the P85 performance sedan will have a top speed of 155 mph, compared with the current 130 mph. It will accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in 3.2 seconds, akin to exotic sports cars.

“This car is nuts. It’s like taking off from a carrier deck,” Musk said at the municipal airport near Los Angeles where another of Musk’s companies — the commercial rocket firm SpaceX — is based. The crowd obliged with cheers and applause.

Tesla is also significantly upgrading its safety features through a combination of radar, image-recognition cameras and sonar.

The Model S will right itself if it wanders from its lane and brake automatically if it is about to hit something. Those features are offered on luxury competitors, as well as mainstream brands such as Ford, Hyundai and Toyota.

But Tesla is going a step further. Its new system will move the car over a lane when the driver uses the turn signal. It will also use cameras to read speed limit signs and decelerate accordingly. Volvo has a system that reads signs and alerts drivers if they are over the limit but does not change the speed.

Musk said “auto pilot” does not mean the car could drive itself — as he put it, a driver cannot “safely fall asleep.”

Pulling together all the driver-assist features impressed Brian A. Johnson, an analyst with Barclay’s. “It’s a year ahead of the timeframe I was expecting,” he said.

Raj Rajkumar, a pioneer of self-driving cars with Carnegie Mellon University, also was impressed but wondered how the “auto-pilot” would perform in different weather and road conditions.

The dual motor will be a $4,000 option on the base and mid-range Model S, which start at $71,000. The base price of the P85 with all-wheel drive — which will be known as P85D — is $120,000.

___

Associated Press Auto Writer Dee-Ann Durbin in Detroit contributed.

MONEY Autos

The $64,000 GMC Sierra Denali Shows How Pickups Have Gone Crazy Luxe

A powerful engine, a moon roof, USB ports and comfortable seating for five are all signs of booms in agriculture and construction.

Even in the darkest days of the American automobile industry, pickup trucks came through. Detroit couldn’t build profitable cars to save its soul, but pickups always delivered sales and profits.

In the last couple of years, with agriculture booming and construction recovering, the auto companies have been outdoing themselves to hang on to this lucrative turf. Ford is about to launch a new, aluminum version of its top selling F-150. Chrysler has had to increase production of its Ram 1500 to keep up with demand. Meanwhile, GM is about to debut two middleweight contenders, Canyon (GMC) and Colorado (Chevy).

GMC also rolled out new versions of its heavy duty 2500 and 3500 Sierra HD models that highlight another trend: the pickup gone crazy luxe. For the successful farmer who now pilots a climate-controlled, $325,000 John Deere 9370R tractor with mission-control computer display terminals, the fully-equipped Sierra Denali 2500HD that we tested might be no less than the minimum required. This diesel-driven, high-waisted brute feels more like a working Escalade, and at $64,000 for the crew-cab, diesel version, it’s priced in the neighborhood.

Who would drop $64,000 on a pickup? Look, I’m a car guy so I really can’t answer that question, but if I had to get up at 4 a.m. every day and do actual labor on a farm or ranch, or at construction sites, I’d like to think I’d earned a cushy ride. And in the Sierra Denali you’ll get one. Once you adjust to sitting a mile high and towering over mere cars — and in Manhattan (New York, that is, not Kansas) it’s kind of a cool perspective — you realize that the Sierra doesn’t feel like a truck. On the highway, it’s one of the quietest vehicles on the highway that I’ve tested this year.

That’s even more surprising considering that this particular Sierra Denali is powered by a 6.6 L V8 Duramax diesel tied to a 6-speed Allison Transmission. But this combo, odd to say, doesn’t shout its 397 h.p. worth of trucky-ness. Because the diesel delivers bigtime torque at low revs, (765 lb. ft. @ 1,600) the pickup’s power sounds more oceanlike as it gathers force. You’ll pay for that power, with the diesel package adding $8,845 to the standard price of $53,740. Since you are already in luxury car territory, why not throw in a power sunroof ($995), aluminum rims ($850), and 20-inch tires ($200)?

You are now styling in four-wheel drive and your buddies will appreciate it: You can fit four of them in the Sierra Denali 2500HD, and they will be properly seated in the more-than-roomy-enough crew cab. You, though, will have the best seat, one that’s heated and air conditioned and equipped with its own alarm system: The seat shimmies to keep you alert in slow traffic or if it senses you are drifting out of your lane. And because this is a work truck, the center console is loaded with storage for files, laptops, or even power tools; there’s also a power panel that includes USB ports, a couple of 12-volt ports, and a standard electrical outlet.

It would be silly of me to try to tow a trailer around New York City, but the Sierra Denali 2500HD can haul one weighing up to 13,000 lb. On the other hand, we did manage a brief four-wheel drive test on a rough patch of Harriman State Park about 50 miles north of New York. The fall foliage was beautiful and the pickup handled the high brush easily given its substantial ground clearance. I’d be looking forward to winter driving in this thing if I worked outside. Although I wouldn’t be looking forward to working outside.

MONEY Gas

Gas Prices Just Hit a Low for 2014

Gas Cans
Get it while it's cheap! NoDerog—Getty Images

Around the country, drivers are paying the lowest prices of the year for gas.

The summertime swoon for gas prices has continued into fall, and now it looks like the forecasts calling for lower and lower prices at the pump are right on track.

Earlier this week, AAA noted that the national average for a gallon of regular stood at $3.29 and that we were on the brink of matching the cheapest mark thus far in 2014 ($3.27, hit on February 9). Well, as of Wednesday, AAA data indicated the national average hit $3.267, a new low for the year.

What’s more, drivers in many states are paying well below the national average. The price of regular is averaging $3.10 or less in Alabama, Arkansas, Kansas, Minnesota, Mississippi, New Jersey, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia, and Missouri is cheapest of all, recently dipping just under $3 per gallon—the first state to average under $3 since January. Drivers in many metropolitan areas, including Kansas City, Duluth, Minn., Tulsa, Okla., and Iowa’s Quad City area, have been enjoying sub-$3 gas this week. The gas price-tracking site GasBuddy is also reporting that gas stations in no fewer than 18 states currently have prices that are the lowest they’ve been for all of 2014.

Best of all for drivers hoping to spend less on fill-ups, all signs indicate the trend for cheaper and cheaper gas will keep on rolling in the months ahead. AAA is predicting that the national average will dip to $3.20, perhaps even $3.10, by the end of the year, by which time as many as 20 states could see per-gallon prices drop below $3.

MONEY Autos

VW’s New Golf Makes the Case for Diesel

The redesigned 2015 VW Golf brings a quieter, more efficient diesel experience to the American consumer.

Diesel has been a dirty word in the American automobile industry for too long. We can’t seem to get the idea out of our heads that “diesel” means smelly, sluggish, expensive and, well, European.

And that’s always been perplexing to European car manufacturers, who have been continually improving the technology, making it cleaner and more efficient.

We may be entering a diesel renaissance in the U.S., however. Sales of diesel-powered cars increased 25% percent during the first six months of 2014, according to HybridCars.com. That’s in some measure because American car makers are increasing the number of diesel options. Chevrolet has added a 2.0L diesel option to its popular Cruz lineup, and more diesels are popping up in pickup trucks such as Chrysler’s Ram. Next year Chevy will add a diesel to its midsized Colorado and GMC Canyon midsized pickups. Mazda is also joining the party.

What’s driving diesel ahead? For one, diesel engines are much cleaner than in the past. Chevy’s Clean Turbo Diesel generates 90% lower nitrogen oxide emissions than earlier models, says the company. That makes environmental regulators happy.

But a 46 m.p.g. highway efficiency rating in the Cruz is what makes buyers happy — and it’s one reason the Cruz power plant was the third diesel engine to make WardsAuto’s top 10 engines list this year. The other two include the 3.0L V-6 turbo diesel that powers both the Ram 1500 pickup and the new Jeep Grand Cherokee; the 3.0L, 6-cylinder turbo diesel pushing both the BMW 535d sedan and X5 crossover rounded out the list.

Even better, the premium you have to pay for the diesel over a gasoline engine — the step-up price — is narrowing. In Volkswagen’s new 4-door Golf, for instance, the 2.0L TDI diesel version is priced at $21,995 for the basic S trim package compared with $20,695 for the 1.8L gas-powered model. “When you look at the step price vs. fuel efficiency, customers are seeing value,” says Doug Skorupski, powertrain strategy manager. The Golf diesel is rated 30 m.p.g. city/45 m.p.g. highway, making it 9 m.p.g. better on the interstate than then gasoline model. And some reviewers are reporting much higher figures for the diesel’s efficiency. On a practical basis, that means you can go weeks without filling the tank.

Does it pay to drive a diesel? Depends on how much you drive, how long you plan to keep your car and how much you beat it up. Diesels are more fuel efficient because you get more compression out of the engine and thus more power compared with gas. Diesel fuel is currently priced about 36c a gallon more than gasoline ($3.457 vs. $3.814, according to the U.S. Energy Information Agency), although that gap is narrower in some places, such as California.

At those prices, you’d have to drive about 100,000 highway miles to erase the premium you paid for the diesel engine. But diesels tend to be lower maintenance, and their resale value is higher, making total cost of ownership lower. “These diesel engines really like to work,” says Skorupski. “No matter how you tend to drive the vehicle, they maintain efficiency.” Translation: You can beat the hell out of them. VW says that 23% of its sales are diesels, but 45% of Golf buyers are choosing diesel.

VW has been selling diesels in the U.S. forever and recently launched its redesigned 2015 Golf, three versions of which come with the company’s TDI (for “turbo direct injection”) diesel engine. The new Golf, the 7th version of this venerable model, represents badly needed fresh merchandise for the VW portfolio, which has suffered in the U.S. for the lack of new product.

And the diesel version can easily make a case for itself. For one, the TDI answers one of the old issues about diesels, that their power isn’t matched by their acceleration. Engineers refer to it as torque curve; as diesels go up rpms, they lose their giddyup.

That’s not the case in the TDI. There’s more than enough torque available, even if the trip up the gears is noticeable on the DSG automatic transmission. VW has made this Golf about two inches longer, an inch lower, and half an inch wider. On the road, the TDI is one of the quietest cars I’ve driven all year. Inside, you may not be dazzled by the styling, but VW sedans have always been about function and value over silliness.

So have diesel owners in general. Remember those Volvo diesel owners you made fun of in the 1980s because of their cars’ sluggish performance? Those days are over. Road & Track reports that Volvo’s five-cylinder, diesel/electric V60 hybrid delivers more torque than a Lamborghini Gallardo. Sensibly, of course.

TIME Transportation

No, Carmaggedon is Not Inevitable

Los Angeles Traffic
Heavy traffic clogs the 101 Freeway as people leave work for the Labor Day holiday in Los Angeles on August 29, 2014. Mark Ralston—AFP/Getty Images

Zocalo Public Square is a not-for-profit Ideas Exchange that blends live events and humanities journalism.

From peak time tolls to smarter parking meters, some ideas that could get Angelenos moving

It makes sense now that the first movie ever filmed in Los Angeles was of nothing but traffic. The 30 seconds of shaky film, shot downtown on Spring Street in 1898, reveal the origin of an enduring issue for the city. L.A. is defined by its traffic, which is universally understood to move very, very slowly.

Today, drivers armed with smartphones use apps like Waze, darting on and off freeways to cut commute times by minutes. And this year, L.A. became the world’s first major city to synchronize all of its traffic lights. Yet in 2013, Angelenos still spent an average of 90 hours stuck in traffic. Could a recent infusion of $32 million for transit improvements in the city help recover this lost time? In advance of the Zócalo/Metro event “What Could Speed Up L.A. Traffic?” we asked transportation experts the following question: What innovations have other cities implemented that could teach L.A. how to speed up traffic?

Matthew Turner: The price of fixing congestion

When a bakery in the former Soviet Union opened in the morning, it gave bread to the first person in line, and then the next, until all the bread was gone. Everyone still in line had to wait for the next batch. This meant that if you were going to get your bread for breakfast, you had to get there early. So there were long lines for bread (like this one).

We do something similar to allocate access to roads. The government builds roads and every morning, the people who want to use them line up. If you are early, there is lots of capacity for you, and you have a speedy trip. If you come a bit later, the capacity is all used up, and you need to wait for road capacity to become available (like cars on this on-ramp).

The Soviet bakery had a line-up problem because bread was handed out free to the first in line. But what if we could price access to roads, just like we price access to bread today? If that were the case, queuing would no longer occur.

In a number of cities around the world—London, Singapore, Stockholm, and even a few highways in L.A.—local authorities make drivers pay to access roads at peak times (but not at other times). In response to a peak hour toll, drivers rearrange their travel schedules. As a result, driving speeds increase and travel times decrease. By constructing a system of tolls, or prices, that are higher for congested roads and times than for uncongested roads and times, we can fix the traffic congestion problem.

The price of reducing traffic congestion is pricing access to roads.

Matthew Turner is professor in the department of economics at Brown University. His research focuses on the economics of land use and transportation. Current projects investigate the relationship between public transit and the growth of cities, whether and how smart growth type development affects individual driving behavior.

Francie Stefan: Streets are a limited resource

Our streets are a limited resource, like water or energy. We can use this resource more efficiently by reducing the need for car trips or by making trips on modes that take up less space. To find a few tools that boost streets’ efficiency, Angelenos can follow the lead of the city of Santa Monica.

Since 40 percent of trips in L.A. County are less than two miles, we know that there are opportunities to convert some vehicle trips to walking, biking, and active transportation. In Santa Monica, basic street restriping was able to convert excess lane width (without reducing car lanes) into over 40 miles of new bike facilities. In only two years, biking increased by over 50 percent.

The best transportation plan is a good land use plan. Santa Monica is focusing housing and jobs near bus and rail networks, taking advantage of L.A. County’s historic streetcar routes and the walkable streets that grew from them. And Santa Monica is building strong first-mile/last-mile walking, biking, and transit connections to future Expo Light Rail stops.

Private industry plays an important role too. New businesses, employers, and residential buildings can help sustain trip reduction strategies by providing commuter incentives, facilities for active commuters (like bicycle stations featuring showers and racks), transit pass subsidies, shared parking, and telecommuting options. These amenities reduce household transportation costs as well as demand on the transportation network.

These strategies will provide a more holistic management of our street resources and “speed up traffic” by moving people in more ways, reducing the bottlenecks for everyone.

Francie Stefan is the transportation & strategic planning manager for the city of Santa Monica, which has set a target of no net new trips for evening peak periods to support more sustainable street function, encourage wellness through active living, and reduce GHG emissions.

Donald Shoup: Tax foreigners living abroad

Most people view parking meters as a necessary evil, or perhaps just evil. Meters can manage curb parking efficiently and provide public revenue, but they are a tough sell to voters. A new kind of meter, however, can change the politics of parking–and reduce traffic–by allowing cities to give price discounts for residents.

In Miami Beach, residents pay only $1 an hour at meters in areas where nonresidents pay $1.75 an hour. Some British cities give the first half hour at meters free to residents. Annapolis, Maryland, and Monterey, California, give residents the first two hours free in municipal parking lots and garages.

Pay-by-license-plate technology can automatically give discounts to all cars with license plates registered in a city. Cities link payment information to license plate numbers to show enforcement officers which cars have paid or not paid. Pay-by-plate meters are common in Europe, and several U.S. cities, including Pittsburgh, now use them.

Like hotel taxes, parking meters with resident discounts can generate substantial local revenue without unduly burdening local voters. The price break for city plates should please merchants because it will give residents a new incentive to shop locally. In big cities, the discounts can be limited to each neighborhood’s residents. More shopping closer to home might then reduce total vehicle travel in the region.

Parking meters with resident discounts come close to the most popular way to raise public revenue: tax foreigners living abroad. More money and less traffic will help any city.

Donald Shoup is distinguished professor of urban planning at UCLA, where he has served as chair of the department of urban planning and director of the Institute of Transportation Studies. His book, The High Cost of Free Parking, explains how better parking policies can improve cities, the economy, and the environment.

Doris Tarchópulos: Reimagining the suburbs

Each city has its own urban characteristics. The dimensions of the streets, the block size, the shapes of the lots, and the type of housing all differ depending on the city and its origins. North American cities are very different from Latin American cities, but they also have common features. From the mid-20th century, Americans in both the Northern and Southern hemispheres have left the core of the city and gone to the suburbs, which has caused car dependency and a crisis of mobility.

In Bogotá, Colombia, we are working on research to create a mix between the current suburbs and human-scale neighborhoods that can be traversed by walking and bicycling. We are thinking of repurposing suburbs gradually, introducing commercial strips along the main roads within neighborhoods, using parking lots or streets to foster vibrant community life, and at the same time, moving people back to the old quarters of the city center.

These ideas are easy to write about but difficult to implement. Reshaping cities demands political will and public conscience. But we also need new definitions of a city model based on a reimagined mobility system. Los Angeles has long been a traffic-clogged city, but given enough time and public support, the way people get around it could be transformed.

Doris Tarchópulos is an architect, associate professor, and director of the master in urban and regional planning at the architecture school of Javeriana University. She has published several award-winning books and scientific articles on housing and urban planning.

This discussion originally appeared on Zócalo Public Square.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

MONEY Autos

Corvette Stingray: All American Muscle

TIME's Bill Saporito test drives the new Corvette Stingray and finds it's as fast and powerful as advertised.

The guy standing on the traffic island seeking donations didn’t want one from me. He just walked over to the car, gave the thumbs-up and then moved on to the unremarkable vehicle behind me.

The 2015 Corvette Stingray ZF1 convertible I was driving is the type of car that can do that. You park it at Home Depot and guys start circling, taking pictures. Parking lot attendants, who see everything on wheels, nod in admiration. New cars that attract this kind of attention are relatively few: The awesome Audi R-8 comes to mind, as do the recently remade Camaro and the old Jaguar XK8. Even that funky little Fiat 500 was a head turner when it first landed.

For Chevrolet, the Corvette is an iconic automobile and you redesign it at your peril. Yet as Ford proved with its Mustang this year, and Chevy itself with Camaro, you can remake trophy cars without denting their heritage. This Vette is a perfect example of heritage brought smartly—and swiftly— forward.

The Stingray did show up with a surprise: an eight-speed automatic with paddle shifters. The automatic trans adds $1,725 to the base price of $58,000, and the other goodies on the car I drove—including a performance data and video recorder—pushed the price up to $71,255. Who would want to drive a Vette with an automatic? Turns out, lots of people, and fully 65% of new Vettes being sold are automatics, according to the company. And it’s not just Corvette owners. Manual transmissions simply can’t match the efficiency of a new generation of 8-, 9-, and 10- speed automatics now being introduced into high performance cars. (In fact, the new Porsche GT3 isn’t available with a manual transmission. It rides a dual-clutch automatic called a Doppelkupplungsgetriebe.) The manual transmission is going the way of the manual window. Do you miss cranking?

Although I absolutely doppelkupplungsgetriebed at the thought of a stickless Corvette, any disappointment disappeared when I stomped on the pedal at a highway on-ramp. Very instant gratification. Chevy has equipped this Vette with its LT1 6.2 liter V-8 engine, the latest version of a famous power plant known as the small block V-8. In GM lore, this engine actually saved the Corvette when it was introduced in 1955, because sales had been languishing with the underpowered 150-hp engine then in use. The small block V8 put the muscle in muscle cars. This updated one has variable valve timing that deactivates cylinders when you don’t need them—say cruising when the tachometer’s barely pushing 1,500 r.p.m.—which helps the car’s impressive 29-m.p.g. highway fuel rating.

But when you want’em, all eight cylinders snap to attention and report for duty, ready to throw out 455-to- 460 h.p. —the higher figure if you get the optional multimode exhaust option ($1,195) that is exquisitely tuned to zoom. This Vette will get you from here to there—0 to 60 mph—in a throaty 3.7 seconds. The eight-speed automatic is even a tick faster than the seven-speed manual, although the thrill of rocketing up the speedometer is very much the same. And if you insist on shifting the gears yourself, go right ahead and use the paddles. Automatic or no, this thing is still low, wide, and nasty. The two competition seats in the Z51 version come with adjustable side bolsters to lock yourself in on tight turns.

It’s not all about speed, I guess. The Stingray includes a 5-position Drive Mode selector (Sport, Track, Tour, Eco, Weather) that adjusts the performance to suit conditions or your whims. And on nice days, there’s that drop-top, which can be popped while moving at up to 30 m.p.h. if you’d like to really show off.

Chevy is also making the convertible available on a supercharged Z06 racing model rated at 650 h.p. that it will introduce next year. Which is going to provide a whole new definition of driving with the wind in your hair. You are probably going to need that automatic. Because you’ll be too busy hanging on to your hat to work a stick.

Correction: a previous version of this story stated the Corvette has a dual-clutch transmission.

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TIME legal

Iowa to Tesla: Stop Test-Driving Your Cars in Our State

A logo of Tesla Motors on an electric car model is seen outside a showroom in New York
A logo of Tesla Motors on an electric car model is seen outside a showroom in New York on June 28, 2010. Shannon Stapleton—Reuters

Iowa's DOT recently put the kibosh on a three-day Tesla Motors test drive in the state capital.

If you want to check out one of Tesla’s newfangled electric rides before buying one, you can add Iowa to the list of states to steer clear of.

That’s because Iowa’s transportation department is telling Tesla Motors to stop offering test drives in the state because doing so is illegal, reports the Des Moines Register. Iowa’s DOT apparently said the test drives–conducted by Tesla in West Des Moines earlier this month–were illegal because Tesla isn’t a licensed auto dealer in Iowa, and that state law bans auto manufacturers from selling vehicles directly to consumers.

Trouble is, Tesla doesn’t sell through traditional franchise outlets, and the company has no franchises dealer relationships anywhere in the U.S. If you want to buy one of billionaire Elon Musk’s ballyhooed electric super-cars, you have to transact directly with the company. Unless you’re filthy rich and/or casually profligate, that’s going to be a tall order for most buyers, considering the base price on a Tesla Model S starts in the $70,000 range and surges by tens of thousands from there.

Note that driving Tesla cars in Iowa is perfectly legal. It’s just the test-driving or selling through a storefront part that’s the problem.

Forbidding car makers from selling directly to the public sounds odd, but in fact auto manufacturers are prohibited from selling directly to consumers in nearly every state. In Texas, for instance, Tesla has two show galleries, one in Houston and another in Austin, but as Tesla itself notes on its website:

In an effort to comply with the current laws, employees at these galleries are prevented from discussing pricing and the reservation process. This includes any discussion on financing, leasing, or purchasing options. Also, galleries cannot offer test drives. The store’s interactive kiosks are also amended to remove pricing. Lastly, we are unable to refer the customer to another store out of state. This puts Tesla at a serious disadvantage and inhibits our ability to reduce misconceptions and educate people about Electric Vehicles and the technology. Furthermore, people are forced to leave the gallery frustrated, lacking sufficient information about the car and the brand.

There may be a political element to the kerfuffle as well: the Register notes franchise auto dealers in states around the country have worked with dealers associations to keep Tesla out, presumably threatened by Tesla’s unconventional sales model. In fact, it was Iowa’s Automobile Dealers Association that tipped the DOT off to Tesla’s test drives in West Des Moines, says the Register.

But not allowing auto manufacturers to sell directly to the public may be harming consumers, argues a 2009 competition-related advocacy report on the U.S. Department of Justice’s website. The paper advocates “eliminating state bans on direct manufacturer sales in order to provide automakers with an opportunity to reduce inventories and distribution costs by better matching production with consumer preferences,” and notes that economic arguments for states’ bans on direct auto sales that cite holdup or free-rider issues “are not persuasive because competition among auto manufacturers gives each manufacturer the incentive to refrain from opportunistic behavior and to work with its dealers to resolve any free-rider problems.”

TIME Environment

Your Electric Car Isn’t Making the Air Any Cleaner

Inside The 1st International Electric Vehicle Expo
A Nissan Motor Co. Leaf electric vehicle (EV) is driven for a test drive during the first International Electric Vehicle Expo. Bloomberg/Getty Images

Rich places get most California green vehicle subsidies—and the environmental benefits of rich people’s Teslas are canceled out by all the gas-guzzling clunkers still on our roads

This is a tale of two zip codes.

First there’s 94582: San Ramon, California.

Since 2010, the roughly 38,000 citizens and businesses of this prosperous Bay Area suburb, where the median household income is $140,444, have purchased 463 zero emissions vehicles. Such vehicles receive major state subsidies; nearly $1 million of these subsidies went to vehicle purchasers in San Ramon. But San Ramon doesn’t need the anti-pollution help. Despite being home to a large highway complex and a business park, the city scores in the cleanest 10 percent of California’s zip codes, according to the Cal EPA’s Enviroscreen Index.

The second zip code is 93640, the Central Valley town of Mendota, population 11,800, with a median annual household income of $28,660, which is less than the $36,625 sticker price of a Honda Fit EV. Mendota is in the top 10 percent of California zip codes for pollution and vulnerabilities such as childhood asthma, according to the CALEnviroscreen. And how many vehicles were purchased there under state subsidies? Exactly one, a lone car whose owner received $2,500.

California’s green vehicle policies have been successful enough to become a model for other states, fueling a movement that is electric, both literally and culturally. The state’s audaciously utopian vision has cajoled an initially reluctant auto industry into producing cheaper, better behaving electric cars, led by the media-savvy upstart Tesla. Since 2010, Californians have put more than 100,000 electric vehicles on the road. But those green vehicle policies contain a flaw that undermines their intent and magnifies the unfairness of California’s economy. These rebates—of as much as $5,000, funded by an extra charge on vehicle registrations—go mostly to affluent communities on California’s coast.

Of the $151 million in subsidies paid since 2010, people who bought zero emissions vehicles in the Bay Area, South Coast (Los Angeles) and San Diego Air Basins have gotten $132 million. Over the same period, people in the San Joaquin Valley have gotten $3 million, despite having the most intractable air quality problems in the state.

Go below the Valley’s smog, and the problem runs much deeper: Its cars are old—much older, on average, than the state’s vehicle fleet. Estimates suggest that the median vehicle in poorer Valley communities is from 1996. According to the Air Resources Board, a vehicle made in 1996 produces 29 times as much pollution per mile from its tailpipe as one sold in 2012.

Translation: The Valley’s stock of old gas guzzlers is wiping out the clean air benefits of the subsidies we’ve bestowed upon the wealthy parts of the state.

You can see the dynamic by looking at those two zip codes together. Every 1997 vehicle in Mendota wipes out emissions benefits of 29 electric vehicles in San Ramon. More precisely, it only takes 16 of Mendota’s finest clunkers to turn the benefits of nearly $1 million in subsidies for San Ramon into a pile of sooty particulate.

I am not making this point to advocate the end of the green vehicle subsidies, but to point out that these subsidies were created to target the state’s wealthy. And they succeeded.

Rebates, tax credits and HOV lane stickers appealed to the better off in parts of the state with thriving economies and traffic congestion. Now the state needs to come up with a new set of policies to target California’s many Mendotas. We need a suite of incentives—low interest loans, non profit auto leasing, and more accessible, appropriate rural transit—to get working families out of older polluting vehicles and into cleaner transportation (which doesn’t have to be electric).

Last year I spoke with a Mendota farmworker who drives a 1995 Ford Explorer. Mr. Hernandez drives twice as far to his skilled job every day—115 miles roundtrip—as the average driver of a Nissan Leaf. Last year he had to pay for two smog tests and repairs, totaling around $500, just to keep his car registered.

From Mr. Hernandez’s point of view, the car is a money pit, but it’s necessary for him to get himself to work and bring his daughter to high school. (Parents have to drive their kids to school when the Valley’s Tule fog delays school start times.) Because the car gets only 15 mpg, he spends $400 to $500 a month on gasoline, and often puts off paying other bills to keep getting to work.

Mr. Hernandez said he’d love to get “a little Honda.” Ironically, if he had access to credit, he could get a Ford Fiesta for $1,400 down and $194 a month, which would cut his gasoline bill in half. But such credit is not easy to come by: The percentage of families without a bank account in Fresno is 3.5 times the national average and used car dealers charge much higher interest.

A well-designed state program to enable families to finance or lease better cars would improve their financial situation and reduce gasoline consumption, and carbon emissions. Mr. Hernandez’s clunker is a big opportunity to make much more dramatic air quality gains than we’re currently achieving. Once they’re in place, these programs can be extended to make electric or other zero emissions vehicles accessible to more families and income levels. This will not be easy, but it is no more utopian than the dream of kick-starting an electric vehicle market.

And as it now stands, California’s air incentive policies miss the people who could use them, and sometimes even seem to work in reverse.

California’s air districts offer cash to owners who turn in old, polluting cars to junkyards, but these programs seem to pick up clunkers that are not driven much. In a survey of 164 vehicles scrapped in Southern California, 29 percent were incapable of driving 25 mph.

By contrast, Mr. Hernandez, with his high weekly mileage, got stymied when he went to his local scrapyard. He was offered a $400 incentive, but was told he’d need to pay $650 to clear up an issue in the title. The deal simply didn’t make sense.

“Now I own an antique!” he said throwing up his hands like a man who’s trapped. But he’s not the only one: California’s big green vision will be stuck in neutral until we figure out how to extend its promise to every zip code.

Lisa Margonelli is an editor at large at Zócalo Public Square, for which she wrote this. Her white paper on vehicles in the Central Valley is available here.

This piece originally appeared on Zócalo Public Square.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

MONEY Gas

$3 Per Gallon Gas, Here We Come

Gas prices
MCCAIG—Getty Images

After peaking around $3.70 per gallon in June, gas prices dropped steadily for two months—and they're expected to keep declining for months to come.

Throughout the U.S., prices at the pump took the unusual step of declining steadily during the summer, resulting in the cheapest Labor Day gas prices in years. Now that we’ve reached summer’s end, which traditionally brings on cheaper gas prices, the downward trend on fuel costs is expected to keep on rolling.

Gas prices are hardly plummeting. As of Friday, the national average for a gallon of regular stood at $3.41, just a couple of pennies less than it was a week ago. But a year ago at this time, the average was $3.55 per gallon, and as recently as June 2014, it was $3.70. As AAA pointed out this week, drivers in several parts of the country are paying significantly less for gas than they were in early September 2013: Prices in Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, and Nebraska are now 28¢ to 33¢ cheaper per gallon compared to a year ago.

Most importantly of all, the decline in prices is expected to stay on track well into the fall and early winter, largely because demand is down due to the end of summer, and because refineries switch to producing cheaper winter-blend gasoline starting in September. At the same time, the U.S. gasoline supply is up 1% compared to last year. So, barring any troubles with refinery production or geopolitics, the anticipation is that it will slowly but surely get cheaper and cheaper to fill up at the pump.

How cheap? “I’m expecting the national average to drop to $3.15 by Halloween, and $3 a gallon as a national average is certainly in the cards,” Andy Lipow, president of consulting firm Lipow Oil Associates, told the Wall Street Journal.

The averages in Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Missouri, Mississippi, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia are already under $3.20 per gallon. “Some states could see a monthly average pump price below $3 a gallon at the end of the year,” Adam Sieminski, head of the Energy Information Administration, said in a statement this week.

Prices under $3 per gallon have already begun popping up at gas stations in cities such as Baton Rouge. And drivers in metropolitan areas like Kansas City think they could be next to enjoy prices under the $3 mark.

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