Let’s say that you were a politician who picked a gee-whiz concept car like the GM Volt and turned it into an icon of your administration. Let’s say that you were so confident, you predicted a million such vehicles would be on the road by 2015, and you promised to buy one yourself, once you were out of office. And let’s also observe that despite giving people (most of whom are wealthy) a whopping $7,500 subsidy to buy a $40,000 car, your union- and government-controlled car company couldn’t sell enough of them to justify keeping the assembly line open. What would you do?
Would you: A) cut your losses altogether; B) scale back your ambitions; or C) dump additional billions of taxpayer dollars into your poster-car and urge your government and cronies to buy them in order to create the illusion they have a market? If you thought option C was the right one, you must work for the Obama administration.
From its earliest days, the Obama administration has declared the GM Volt to be the vehicle of the future. Administration officials have pulled out all the stops in the government market-forcing playbook: They’ve thrown subsidies at the Volt hand over fist (about a quarter million bucks per vehicle, at this point). They’ve jacked up fuel economy and air pollution standards for regular cars, making them more expensive (and making the Volt “more competitive”). They’ve set sales targets for deployment, and mandated government agencies buy the Volt. And, of course, they’ve bailed out the manufacturer with taxpayer dollars. They even delayed public acknowledgement of the Volt’s spontaneous-combustion problems to avoid an untimely surge of vehicle recalls. In short, they’ve done everything but force McDonald’s to give out a free Volt with every Happy Meal. None of it has worked: Volt sales are, frankly, a very sick joke: Last year, Chevy sold a grand total of 7,651 Volts. Only 992,000 to go!
But in the pursuit of vehicle electrification, the administration is not to be denied. The president’s response to what has to be considered a spectacular failure is to pour still more taxpayer dollars into this bonfire of his vanity. In his 2012 budget, the president called for increasing the Volt purchase subsidy to $10,000 per vehicle, and recently he announced another billion dollars in spending to encourage communities to purchase “advanced vehicles” such as the Volt. What’s a few billion dollars among friends? Given their incomes, the people buying these cars are very possibly Obama’s friends: Volt buyers are eco-conscious people with an average income of $170,000, according to GM.
What do voters think of this idea? Rasmussen has found that “just 29% of likely U.S. voters favor $10,000 government subsidies to encourage the purchase of electric cars. … Fifty-eight percent (58%) are opposed to such subsidies. Thirteen percent (13%) are undecided.”
There is something about electric cars that seems to induce a sort of euphoric amnesia among transportation planners. It’s like a recurring thought-flu that surfaces every 20 years or so. The last outbreak was in California in 1990, when the California Air Resources Board tried to electrify California’s vehicle fleet. California’s technocrats dictated that “at least 2 percent, 5 percent and 10 percent of new car sales be zero-emitting by 1998, 2001 and 2003 respectively.” They also offered incentives to the well-to-do, built charging stations, and the whole nine yards. They promised a glorious battery-industry revolution. They also went with an underperforming, overpriced GM offering, thrillingly named the EV-1. Didn’t work then, isn’t working now.
As Robert Bryce points out in his excellent book “Power Hungry,” EV boosters have been flogging electric cars since 1911, when The New York Times declared that “the electric car has long been recognized as the ideal solution” because it “is cleaner and quieter” and “much more economical.” Electric cars, explains Bryce, “are the Next Big Thing. And they always will be.”
Kenneth P. Green is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.