What Obama Got Right About Electric Vehicles

Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

By now, you’ve probably seen the articles calling President Obama to account for his stated goal of 1 million electric vehicles on U.S. roads by 2015. Indeed, the president was overly optimistic about the EV industry in his 2011 State of the Union address. However, Obama got plenty right about plug-in vehicles, including the connection to clean energy, the importance of U.S. leadership in EV technology, and how massive oil subsidies keep the segment down.

Critics of electric cars and green energy delight in this Obama statement that did not come to pass: “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.”

The line drew wide applause from both houses of Congress, with even ex-Speaker John Boehner getting in on the action. On the auto market, the fall of Fisker and the lighter-than-expected sales of the Chevy Volt got the industry off to a slow start. As we begin 2016, the total sits at about 400,000 sales of plug-in hybrids and pure electric vehicles, with the 1 million mark expected sometime around 2018.

However, the (usually omitted) following lines of Obama’s 2011 speech never rang truer:

We need to get behind this innovation. To help pay for it, I’m asking Congress to eliminate the billions in taxpayer dollars we currently give to oil companies … Instead of subsidizing yesterday’s energy, let’s invest in tomorrow’s. Clean energy breakthroughs will only translate into clean energy jobs if businesses know there will be a market for what they’re selling.

While critics of EVs have balked at the small tax credits available to buyers of plug-ins, the amount is hardly a drop in the bucket compared to massive fossil fuel subsidies U.S. taxpayers fund every year. Had clean energy electrified transport been given such a boost, we could see Obama’s prediction of a million EVs being a much closer race to call in 2016. Norway, the country with the highest rate of plug-in sales (22%), has proved how well the formula works.

Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

On the clean energy front, the U.S. grid has become cleaner every year since Obama called for change in 2011, even with a drilling boom and pushback from fossil fuel industries. As a result, even the most coal-dependent areas still make EVs greener than gasoline cars, and 66% of Americans live in an area where electric cars operate at the equivalent of 51 miles per gallon or better. That makes the U.S. a better fit for electric vehicles than China, where plug-in sales are booming but the grid is powered mainly by coal.

In addition to these advances in energy production, the U.S. produces the world’s top-selling EV, the Tesla Model S, a vehicle that has caused a revolution in the auto industry. Because of Tesla, luxury car companies including Porsche, Audi, Mercedes-Benz, Aston Martin, and BMW have scrambled to bring electrified models to market.

Tesla’s influence has impacted the high end of the market, and the innovation Obama called for indeed began in California, starting with a $465 million U.S. Treasury loan the automaker received in 2010. There is no telling what type of emissions reduction Tesla will effect on global transportation when it’s all said and done. For now, knowing there will be many more luxury cars running clean because of the Model S is a major accomplishment.

Obama may have fallen short on one of his high sales goals for electric vehicles, but he was dead right about many of the great things that followed. As the Chevy Bolt EV and Tesla Model 3 navigate their way to market, we are betting the best is yet to come. Now if we could only do something about those oil subsidies.

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