The president mentioned the effort as an area of possible agreement between Democrats and Republicans in his post-election press conference last week. And in July, an electric vehicle bill passed out of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on a bipartisan 19-4 vote.
The measure takes its inspiration from a plan laid out by the Electrification Coalition, headed by a group of CEOs from companies up and down the electric vehicle chain — battery developers, Nissan, end-users like FedEx.
The bill would pour up to $2 billion into a series of pilot projects around the country in an attempt to demonstrate that the electric vehicle can work — both as transportation phenomenon and as commercial entity.
Seth Becker, a spokesman for the Electrification Coalition, says advocates hope the program will work something like the Obama Administration’s Race to the Top education grant competition, spurring innovation among communities competing for the cash. And local advocates, Project Get Ready Rhode Island among them, are already talking about what they can do to win the money.
Some critics in the auto industry have suggested that the pilot-project approach could turn electric cars into a boutique vehicle, popular in a handful of places but weak nationwide.
Supporters, though, say the legislation would do just the opposite — using a handful of markets to prove that the cars can become a true force, rather than spreading the first generation thinly across the country and watching them melt into insignificance.
The approach is, in short, a bid to avoid the fate the Toyota Prius, a hybrid which — for all the sizzle — is but a minor part of the US auto market. “You’ve got to take it to the next level,” says Becker. “A million vehicles isn’t going to do it. In the long run, 10 million vehicles isn’t going to do it either.”
But some industry experts are skeptical that the electric vehicle will fare any better than the Prius. A recent report by JD Power and Associates captured the mood with its title, “Drive Green 2020: More Hope Than Reality.”
The central concern: battery-powered vehicles are plagued by many of the same problems that doomed the first iteration of electric cars in the early 20th century — limited driving range, extended recharge times, a minimal public charging infrastructure, and the high cost of battery packs.
The latter problem — cost — is probably the biggest impediment to widespread adoption. Sticker price on the Leaf: $32,780, though government subsidies will knock several thousand dollars off the bill.
Even advocates concede that without a substantial leap in gas prices or the gas tax — neither of which seem terribly likely in the near term — it will be almost impossible for electric vehicles to compete long-term.
And even if some sort of alternative to the internal combustion engine emerges in the next decade or two, it’s not clear that the electric vehicle will be that alternative. “Electric cars are one way,” says Michael Smitka, an economics professor at Washington and Lee University who specializes in the auto industry, “they may not be the only way.”
Still, if investing billions in a technology that might go nowhere seems an expensive gamble, Dahlberg says electricity is a good bet. It’s cheap, it’s ubiquitous, and it’s fired by entirely domestic resources — coal, natural gas, nu-clear, even a little wind.