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Panel Claims U.S. Can’t Meet White House Goal of Putting 1 Million Battery Cars on the Road by 2015

President still intent on shift to clean power for cars.

by on Feb.03, 2011

The White House wants 1 million battery cars, like this Ford C-Max Energi, on the road by 2015.

President Barack Obama, during a visit to Penn State today,  laid out more of his broad plan for the nation to switch to clean energy, a move that would, among other things, place heavy emphasis on putting at least 1 million battery cars on the road by 2015.

But a blue-ribbon panel, put together by Indiana University, warns that the administration won’t be able to meet its goal of shifting motorists into hybrids and battery-electric vehicles that quickly.

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“The production intentions of automakers are currently insufficient to meet the 2015 goal,” argued the report, “and even the current plans for production volume may not be met.”

Pres. Obama has made energy a cornerstone of his policies, and has authorized billions of dollars in grants and low-interest loans to promote energy efficiency and a shift away from imported oil.  Much of that money has gone to the auto industry, where it is supporting efforts to set up lithium-ion production facilities, develop even more advanced batteries, and help manufacturers put on the road vehicles that can use the new technologies.

Among the beneficiaries of that funding are Nissan, which recently launched the new Leaf battery-electric vehicle, or BEV, and General Motors, which brought its Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid to market at about the same time.

Both models have been winning extensive kudos, Volt most recently being named North American Car of the Year by a panel of 49 U.S. and Canadian journalists.  But the two vehicles are facing a slow ramp-up, with total combined sales of less than 1,000 since they first reached showrooms in December.  And Nissan confirmed, last month, that the launch of the Leaf will go slowly until at least the middle of the year, part of its effort to ensure it can properly manage the production of the new technology.

(Click Here for more on that story.)

But eventually, the Japanese maker is hoping to turn the Leaf – and other battery-based products to follow – into a mainstream business, with global capacity of 250,000 a year by 2014.  GM has already begun searching for ways to expand output, CEO Dan Akerson recently expressing the goal of boosting Volt production from a planned 10,000 this year to as much as 25,000.

Other makers are quickly entering the market.  Ford launched production of its new Transit Connect Electric at the end of 2010, and will launch the new Focus Electric within a year, to be followed by several plug-in hybrids, including the new C-Max Energi.

That has led some proponents, such as the National Resource Defense Council, to see the 1 million target as, if anything, conservative.

But the 13-member Indiana University panel warned there are simply too many obstacles in the way.  John Graham, dean of the IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs, said they include limited industry capacity, as well as questionable public demand for plug-ins and battery-electric vehicles, or BEVs.

The panel’s conclusions mirror other recent reports projecting a slow ramp-up for battery cars, the Driving Green study, from J.D. Power and Associates, for example, predicting that all battery-based vehicles, including conventional hybrids, will make up no more than 7% of total demand by the end of the decade.

To get there sooner, warned Gurminder Bedi, the IU panel chairman and a former top Ford executive, will require close industry-government cooperation.

The president has been pressing Congress to increase support for both industry efforts and consumer incentives.  Indeed, Michigan Cong. Sander Levin has introduced a White House-supported measure that would expand availability of the current $7,500 tax credits available to buyers of qualified battery vehicles, such as Leaf and Volt.  Congress may also shift to a rebate-style approach that would provide the $7,500 up-front, allowing it to be used as a down-payment for vehicles like Volt and Leaf.

But there’s no question that things will have to change quickly.  The current estimate is that there are less than 100,000 plug-ins and pure BEVs on U.S. roads today.

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2 Responses to “Panel Claims U.S. Can’t Meet White House Goal of Putting 1 Million Battery Cars on the Road by 2015”

  1. GenJones says:

    Well, lets see. As a new car buyer, do I really want a plug in and spend $7500 of the taxpayer’s (my) money? How about just allowing the market to work better with fewer stifling regulations. How about allowing more diesels and smaller cars into the US market without the ridiculous requirements that automakers are currently required to meet and pass on to the consumer as higher costs and decreased choices. That would be too easy and make the legislative class look too ineffective. Doesn’t look like it will happen at least for the next 2 years or more.

    • Paul A. Eisenstein says:

      Of course, Peter, the counter-arguments are numerous. I won’t say which I buy but I will say which deserve discussion:
      - We ignore the fact that we are already subsidizing gasoline-powered vehicles through our defense budget to the tune of $100s of billions annually, as a large portion of that money protects oil passage … and not just for us, but for potentially long-term rivals like China;
      - We ignore that China, in particular, but by no means exclusively, is investing massive support in electrification and could well take the lead in this at a point when we could see the technology become much more viable and more critical;
      - We ignore emissions regulations entirely? How far back would you suggest we go? Perhaps to pre-’70s levels?
      (By the way, to lay things out in the open, I DO believe increasing access to diesels here would be a good thing…)
      I have to say that while some might believe that we’ll see an era where lawmakers would role things backwards, I don’t expect that to happen. For years, the industry tried to say Washington went too far, ie, on safety. If you think the public would accept any party pulling back on that subject, well, you are fooling yourself. The fact is, after the Toyota debacle, where it appears regulators got too cozy with the industry, the pressure is on to be tougher on enforcement.
      Now, there are plenty of caveats to my comments, above, and I think you know from reading the site we have raised plenty of questions about the future of battery power. But I think we need be very careful before we simply ignore or dismiss it and deny the potential need to invest in it.
      Paul A. Eisenstein