The electric car mistake
The Obama administration's electric car fantasy finally may have died on the road between Newark, Del., and Milford, Conn.
The New York Times' John M. Broder reported this month that the Tesla Model S electric car he was test-driving repeatedly ran out of juice, partly because cold weather reduces the battery's range by about 10 percent.
Broder's trip turned into a nightmare, including a stretch with the conked-out car riding the back of a flatbed truck.
Tesla chief executive Elon Musk fired back on Monday, tweeting that Broder's report is a “fake” and that “vehicle logs” show he “didn't actually charge to max & took a long detour.”
The Times is standing by its story. My take is that even if Musk is 100 percent right and Broder is 100 percent wrong — which I doubt — Musk loses.
Who wants a $101,000 car that might die just because you feel like taking “a long detour”?
President Obama repeatedly declared that, with enough federal aid, we can put a million electric vehicles on the road by 2015. His administration has invested about $5 billion in grants, guaranteed loans — including $465 million for Tesla — and tax incentives to buyers.
Yet Americans bought just 71,000 plug-in hybrids or all-electric vehicles in the past two years, according to GreenCarReports.com. That's about a third as many as the Energy Department forecast in a 2011 report that attempted to explain why Obama's goal was not preposterous.
Federal billions cannot overcome the fact that electric vehicles and plug-in electric hybrids meet few, if any, of real consumers' needs. Compared with gas-powered cars, they deliver inferior performance at much higher cost. As an American Physical Society symposium on battery research concluded last June: “Despite their many potential advantages, all-electric vehicles will not replace the standard American family car in the foreseeable future.”
If you don't believe the scientists, listen to Takeshi Uchiyamada, the “father” of the Toyota Prius: “Because of its shortcomings — driving range, cost and recharging time — the electric vehicle is not a viable replacement for most conventional cars.”
Even Nissan chief Carlos Ghosn, whose commitment to the all-electric Leaf helped his firm get a $1.4 billion U.S. loan guarantee, has reduced his boosterism in the face of disappointing sales.
Nor do electric cars promise much in the way of greenhouse-gas reduction, as long as they rely on a power grid that is still mostly fired by fossil fuels.
As for Vice President Joe Biden's 2009 forecast of “billions and billions and billions of dollars in good, new jobs,” the electric car factory at which he made that statement sits idle. Ditto the taxpayer-backed Michigan factory of battery maker LG Chem. Two Energy Department-funded lithium-ion battery makers have gone bankrupt.
There's simply no denying that the administration's electric vehicle project was a mistake.
But it's worth asking precisely what kind of mistake — beyond eminently foreseeable and terribly expensive. As Bruce Springsteen once sang: “Is a dream a lie if it don't come true, or is it something worse?”
I accept the president's good intentions. He didn't set out to rip off the public. Nor was the electric-car dream a Democrats-only delusion. Several Republican pols shared it, too.
Rather, the debacle is a case study in unchecked righteousness. The administration assumed the worthiness and urgency of its goals. Americans should want electric cars and, therefore, they would, apparently.
Energy Secretary Steven Chu, he of the Nobel Prize in physics, epitomized the regnant blend of sanctimony and technocratic hubris. He once told journalist Michael Grunwald that photosynthesis is “too damn inefficient” and that DOE might help correct that particular error of evolution.
The department has recently backed away from the million-car target in favor of reducing battery costs to $300 per kilowatt-hour by 2015 (from $650 today). Even this seems dubious, given the APS symposium's view that “only incremental improvements can be expected” in lithium-ion batteries.
Chu is on his way out but still dreaming. “For the engineers in the room or those who follow this, you might be saying to yourself, ‘What are they smoking?'” he remarked at the Washington Auto Show. “We're not smoking anything. They are ambitious goals but they are achievable goals.”
I might add that Chu does not own a car.
Charles Lane is a member of The Washington Post's editorial board.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Opposing defenses find success against Steelers by eschewing blitz
- Penguins forward Downie becoming a hit with teammates
- Pittsburgh wins Gawker.com ugliest accent tourney n’at
- Steelers looking for Spence to step up game at inside linebacker
- Steelers’ Brown made good after leaving PSU in wake of sanctions
- Shale oil, gas finds put Mon Valley on path to renaissance, leaders say
- Western Pennsylvania residents chill about forecasters’ spat
- Pittsburgh VA director gets more time to appeal firing recommendation
- New tricks available for squirrel hunters
- Crash closes road in Dunbar
- Legal titans prepared to tussle in Ferrante cyanide homicide trial