Where Electric Vehicle Hype and Campaign Promises Collide

DENVER - AUGUST 28: U.S. Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) speaks as he accepts the Democratic presidential nomination at Invesco Field at Mile High at the 2008 Democratic National Convention (DNC) August 28, 2008 in Denver, Colorado. Obama's acceptance speech coincides today with the 45th anniversary of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivery of the "I Have a Dream" speech. Sen. Obama is now the first African-American to be officially nominated as a candidate for U.S. president by a major party. (Photo by Chuck Kennedy-Pool/Getty Images)
Chuck Kennedy/Getty Images

You can believe the hype about electric cars, the authors of a new study conclude, as long as you have the policies in place to make change happen. However, “excessively positive expectations that turn out to be impossible can contribute to more extreme disappointment.” Are we talking about plug-in cars or the 2008 campaign of Barack Obama here? In fact, the presidential election cycle offers lessons on better EV development in the future.

According to the authors of “Moving beyond alternative fuel hype to decarbonize transportation,” published in Nature Energy, the failure of alternative fuel policies in recent decades can be tied to overly high expectations and a lack of support by the government agencies who set them. To make the point, researchers went back and studied efforts from President George H.W. Bush through the Obama administration.

In each presidency, a different alternative fuel was hyped without technology that could back the goals set for it. As a result, hype from the media got the public on board but eventually led to widespread disappointment when the policies were not implemented successfully. Basically, the three presidents wrote a check they couldn’t cash, and the fuel in question took a hit, as did the corresponding vehicles.

We saw that most recently in the crowing over Obama’s missed goal of 1 million electric vehicles by 2016. While that benchmark was one of supreme optimism, certain conditions were in place that would never allow it to happen, beginning with battery technology. Just as importantly, automakers were not willing to commit to pricey EV development and production, and the administration was not willing to force them, despite the fact it had bailed out the three Detroit manufacturers in some way.

Scott Olson/Getty Images
Scott Olson/Getty Images

With the 2016 election now in full swing, we have been reminded of Obama’s inspirational campaign from eight years ago. The chief criticism of the sitting president (from supporters and opponents alike) centers around his mistake of setting the bar too high. To sum it up in a sentence, many believe he wasn’t aware how difficult it would be to move Congress, even when the ideas were great.

His optimism continued into his presidency. For example, right after Obama mentioned the one million EVs in 2011, he said it was time for Congress to end the billions in oil subsidies. It doesn’t take a doctoral thesis on U.S. politics post-Citizens United to understand how difficult that task would be. The Koch Brothers, two of the country’s biggest campaign donors, would never allow such a thing without a bruising fight.

Even though you can’t blame someone for believing and trying, you can fault him for having the numbers wrong, and not adjusting policy to account for the discrepancy. According to the authors of the alternative fuels study, things usually turn in the other direction. Rather than increasing EV incentives, many states have pulled their tax credits and grants, which hurt the plug-in segment badly after fuel prices fell. What the electric car segment needed was more help, not less.

The study’s authors suggest setting more reasonable goals grounded in available and emerging tech. If there is a turn in one direction or another, stakeholders should have the flexibility to adjust policy. Be more pragmatic, in other words. Looking at the messages of presidential candidates in 2016, it sounds like they are saying Hillary Clinton’s campaign is the model to follow. It may not be dreamy, but it will probably work the best.

Follow Eric on Twitter @EricSchaalNY