Factions Square Off in Battle for Electric Car Future

By · January 19, 2012

Ford's Alan Mulally and Focus Electric Car

Ford CEO Alan Mulally grabs every available photo opp with an electric car, but says pure electric cars don't make economic sense and are a "longer-term journey."

As we’ve explored many times before on this site, electric cars are a political lightning rod for strong views about the future of energy, the environment and sustainable transportation in the United States. In 2005, James Woolsey, the Volt-driving EV-promoting former CIA director, called for a new broad-based coalition to move toward vehicle electrification. Woolsey said the coalition would be made up of “tree huggers, do-gooders, sodbusters, and cheap hawks—people like me who want to reduce the leverage of Middle East countries, and win this long war on terrorism with as little shooting as possible.”

Unfortunately, based on news from the first weeks of this second year of the new wave of electric cars, any fledgling coalition has started to break into deeply divided factions. I’ll take a stab at defining the camps.

Anti-EV Republicans and Media: As Randy Essex and Ben Holland from the Rocky Mountain Institute aptly pointed out a couple of weeks ago, electric cars are under attack by conservative politicians and media pundits with “flawed narratives” about EVs. The most vocal electric car critics look at sales of 17,000 EVs in 2011 as proof-positive that there’s no market for plug-in cars—and are calling for a repeal of tax consumer credits. The RMI authors write, “The [incentives] are under fire—even as gas prices jumped because of Iran’s threats to close the Strait of Hormuz, a chokepoint in global oil trade.” They warn that we “can’t necessarily count on Congress to guide [our] energy future." They say we should be aiming to end America’s fossil fuel dependency by 2050, but instead we are bickering over “short-term incentives and outcomes and putting innovation in a shooting gallery because it didn’t take over the US vehicle market in its first year.”

Obama Administration: Of course, the attacks have put the Obama Administration on the defense—especially regarding its goal of getting 1 million plug-in cars on the road by 2015. Earlier this month, Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood adamantly defended the tax credit, stating, "The program has worked. It's real money and people have utilized it." Administration officials see the credit as essential to the goal of reducing emissions and slashing our dependency on foreign oil—and show no sign of backing down on the 1 million number (which after all is a fairly arbitrary and aspirational figure). The “shooting gallery” will continue to get louder. Just this week, General Motors CEO Dan Akerson agreed to testify before a US House subcommittee about the much-overblown Chevy Volt battery fire issue, which is being used to instill fear of the technology.

Obama and Electric Car

President Obama recently checked out the Transit Connect Electric battery-powered delivery van.

Auto Industry: With the exception of Nissan (and General Motors to some degree), auto companies are speaking out of both sides of their mouth when it comes to electric cars and plug-in hybrids. In one moment, they triumphantly roll out enticing electric concept vehicles at major shows, or release limited-run vehicles produced in numbers just high enough to meet California zero-emission mandates (but dismally low by market standards). In the next moment, they question the viability of EVs.

Chief among the double-talkers is Alan Mulally, Ford’s CEO. Fresh from selling its first Focus Electric, and days before announcing that it will produce a plug-in hybrid version of the Fusion sedan (to sell along with its C-Max Energi crossover plug-in hybrid), Mulally backtracked. “The infrastructure is just not there yet,” Mulally told Newsweek. He said that EVs are a “very tough economic case.” In a statement nearly identical to what Honda President Takanobu Ito told me at this year’s Tokyo Motor Show, he said gas hybrids and more efficient internal combustion engines are a better option. “The ones that make the most economic sense are the hybrids, like the Escape and Fusion hybrid,” Mulally told Newsweek, because they “have no limitation on range. It isn’t going to get in the way of your lifestyle—you know, whether you can charge it or not.” (Ironically, Ford will not offer a hybrid version of the 2013 Ford Escape SUV.)

These kinds of statements embolden media to make statements like this one from Daily Beast/Newsweek. In the piece covering Mulullay’s view of EVs,Joanne Lipman, Newsweek's C-Suite columnist, wrote, “It’s hard not to think that Obama is looking a lot like the last guy to buy an eight-track tape player, championing exactly the wrong technology at the wrong time.” Wha? Internal combustion is the future, and electric cars are eight-track players?

EV Drivers and Advocates: As usual, the folks driving electric cars are rarely consulted or quoted. While outsiders might expect citizens behind the wheel of battery-powered cars to vociferously demand an immediate EV revolution, I believe electric car drivers have the most accurate view of the situation. The benefits of EVs are abundantly clear—fun to drive, no tailpipe emissions, lower maintenance cost, breaking our relationship with gas stations and oil wars, etc.—but we aren’t driving with rose-colored glasses on. As Chelsea Sexton, long-time EV spokeswoman, pointed out via Twitter yesterday, there’s not a single new electric car or plug-in hybrid launching this year that will sell in numbers greater than the Nissan LEAF sold in 2011.

Chelsea describes the ramifications of that sobering fact in 140 characters: “Lower volume prod launches = lower 1st yr sales #s for each = more neg media. We need to calibrate expectations accordingly.”

New to EVs? Start here

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  2. Incentives for Plug-in Hybrids and Electric Cars
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  3. Buying Your First Home EV Charger
    You'll want a home charger. Here's how to buy the right one.