Under a new strategy announced today, the Department of Energy promised to support research into new battery technologies and manufacturing methods that would lower the cost of lightweight materials and improve vehicles’ fuel-efficiency, Reuters reports.
But the DOE backpedales furiously from a goal set out in a 2011 State of the Union speech, where President Barack Obama announced what he called “Apollo projects of our times.” One of them was the goal for the United States to be “the first country to have a million electric vehicles on the road by 2015.”
“Whether we meet that goal in 2015 or 2016, that’s less important than that we’re on the right path to get many millions of these vehicles on the road,” an unnamed Energy Department official told Reuters.
This is our generation’s Sputnik moment. Two years ago, I said that we needed to reach a level of research and development we haven’t seen since the height of the Space Race. And in a few weeks, I will be sending a budget to Congress that helps us meet that goal. We’ll invest in biomedical research, information technology, and especially clean energy technology — (applause) — an investment that will strengthen our security, protect our planet, and create countless new jobs for our people.
Already, we’re seeing the promise of renewable energy. Robert and Gary Allen are brothers who run a small Michigan roofing company. After September 11th, they volunteered their best roofers to help repair the Pentagon. But half of their factory went unused, and the recession hit them hard. Today, with the help of a government loan, that empty space is being used to manufacture solar shingles that are being sold all across the country. In Robert’s words, “We reinvented ourselves.”
That’s what Americans have done for over 200 years: reinvented ourselves. And to spur on more success stories like the Allen Brothers, we’ve begun to reinvent our energy policy. We’re not just handing out money. We’re issuing a challenge. We’re telling America’s scientists and engineers that if they assemble teams of the best minds in their fields, and focus on the hardest problems in clean energy, we’ll fund the Apollo projects of our time.
At the California Institute of Technology, they’re developing a way to turn sunlight and water into fuel for our cars. At Oak Ridge National Laboratory, they’re using supercomputers to get a lot more power out of our nuclear facilities. With more research and incentives, we can break our dependence on oil with biofuels, and become the first country to have a million electric vehicles on the road by 2015. (Applause.)
Anyone with half a grain of sense knew the President’s goal was ridiculous. There is a world of difference between the Apollo Program and whatever airy reinvention he had in mind. Our space program from the outset had a single, well-defined, and self-contained focus: put human beings on the moon. Every step in the program was a step toward that single goal.
President Obama’s “Apollo projects of our time” are all over the map. He wants us to fix problems that may or may not be problems without ever really defining either the problem or what the fix should specifically accomplish. One million electric cars on the road sounds like a specific plan, but it really isn’t. Let’s assume auto makers could produce a reliable, fairly-affordable electric car and all the infrastructure that car would require (charging stations, qualified mechanics, spare parts, etc) by the end of 2013. That alone would be a feat greater than the Apollo program, but let’s say it happens. We’re only part of the way there. Now the auto companies have to sell one million cars in just two years, or 500,000 every year. Is that doable?
Well, yes, perhaps. According to the Cars.com blog, the best-selling car in 2012 was the Ford F-series pickup truck with over 645,000 vehicles sold. In second place was the Chevrolet Silverado, at a little over 418,000. So our hypothetical electric vehicle would have to be one of the best-selling vehicles of the year for two straight years and would compete in a market where the two most popular models were full-sized pickup trucks. It is possible that a compact or sub-compact EV could muscle into the top ten, but it would be awfully difficult, considering that none of the models on the list are smaller than mid-sized. Indeed, the most popular electric vehicle currently on the market, the Chevy Volt, didn’t even crack 24,000 cars sold last year, despite heavy marketing from both Chevrolet and the federal government.
So, not only did the President’s goal include building an entirely new type of vehicle and the national infrastructure to keep such a vehicle in safe and running condition, but it also included selling enough of the vehicles to make it a contender for the most popular vehicle of the year for two straight years. I’ll grant you that’s possible, but there were so many moving parts to the plan and so many variables completely outside anyone’s direct control that it was more like one of Dr. Doofenshmirtz’ clever schemes than a serious national ambition. No wonder it failed.