How Ronald Reagan helped invent the electric car

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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With five dollar a gallon gas prices looming on the horizon, and Tehran threatening to close the Strait of Hormuz, Americans are looking for alternative ways to limit our dependency on foreign oil. One possible solution might be the electric car. But there are longstanding questions; electric cards are expensive, and for that reason (and others), they haven’t exactly been flying off showroom floors.

There are political problems, too. Conservatives — the largest ideological bloc in the U.S. — seem to harbor an especially strong disdain for the electric car.

This is perhaps, ironic.

According to Nobel Prize-winning author Daniel Yergin’s new book, “The Quest: Energy, Security, and the Remaking of the Modern World,” though some may see it as a rather dubious distinction, more than any other president, Ronald Reagan probably deserves credit for the invention of the modern electric car.

He certainly has as good a claim to that as Al Gore has to inventing the internet.

Some history: Electric cars have been around since the late-19th century. Woodrow Wilson even drove an electric car in the early 1920s. But cheap domestic oil — and the arrival of Henry Ford’s Model T in 1908 — eventually made the internal combustion engine de rigueur — and the electric car, nearly extinct.

All that began to change, however, when a Caltech chemistry professor named Arie Haagen-Smit took a break from his research on the pineapple to seek a breath of fresh air. He stepped outside only to be promptly assailed by smog.

Nobody at the time really knew what caused it, and Haagen-Smit, then and there, resolved to discover the cause. Very quickly, he was able to determine that the culprit was emissions from the tailpipes of cars.

The story might have ended there, had the smog problem not continue to increase. In 1954, for example, Yergin writes, “a dense blue-gray haze … settled over and suffocated the Los Angeles Basin.” The problem was serious enough that LAX had to close — and that phys-ed and recess periods were canceled for kids.

The smog problem persisted to the point that in 1967, California Gov. Reagan signed legislation creating the California Air Resources Board (a.k.a. CARB). In 1968, as its first chairman, Reagan appointed none other than Professor Arie Haagen-Smit — the “The Father of Smog.”

CARB would eventually become, Yergin notes, the “de facto national authority” on national emissions. And after Reagan left the governorship, CARB created the ZEV (“zero emissions vehicle” ) the regulatory spur to today’s electric car. (This is why Reagan could arguably be considered the father of the modern electric car.)

This, of course, would surprise many of his admirers and detractors. (Note: As is often the case, Reagan serves as a sort of Rorschach test. He has also been cast as a villain in the documentary, “Who Killed The Electric Car.”)

But “[Reagan] was definitely strong on environmental protection as governor of California in ways that are often forgotten,” says James Strock, the first Secretary of the California EPA, and a former Reagan Administration official, who is also the author of “Reagan on Leadership.”

And while some argue Reagan’s policies shifted when he entered the White House, Strock notes that Reagan “was always protective — as president — of [CARB’s] right to set stricter standards than the federal standards.”

“The automakers had hoped they could get [Reagan] to override California authority on [CARB],” he said. They were out of luck.

Today, the electric car is still an unknown quantity to most consumers, yet nearly all the major automakers see the future value of this technology and are rushing into production of models that will compete with GM’s Volt and Nissan’s Leaf. Soon, wireless electrical charging might even be an option. But there are lingering concerns.

Dan Kish, a former chief of staff for Republicans on the House Resources Committee and on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, who now serves as the Institute for Energy Research’s senior vice president for policy, likes to call electric cars “pet rocks.”

“They’re also damned expensive, have serious demands of their own on limited resources upon which we are more dependent than oil, and are impractical except for some people whose uses are always the same,” Kish says.

“The challenge is the battery,” says Strock. “For a city car, it can be great. But for longer drives…it still has not totally come into its own. It’s not clear how the technology is going to sort out.”

The problem is that city denizens — people who might only drive a few miles each day — still harbor that very romantic, American notion that they could theoretically decide to spontaneously hop in their car and drive from coast to coast. They may never actually do it, mind you, but the thought that they could serves as a deterrent to purchasing an electric car.

There’s also the question over whether or not they really are more environmentally friendly than traditional cars. In some cases, they aren’t. “California gets its electricity from clean sources,” Strock explains, “[but] for areas that get their electricity from less clean sources, electric vehicles have less environmental soundness.”

But while there are very real reasons to be skeptical of the electric car, I can’t help thinking that much of the animosity has little to do with the car, itself.

Many conservatives now reflexively oppose the electric car — not based on its merits — but instead, based on auto bailouts and government subsidies. Rather than raising this specific concern, however, the electric car has been cast as the “enemy” — a notion which also seems to also cast (fairly or not) conservatives as being opposed to technological innovation.

This needn’t necessarily be the case, advises Kish: “As for a conservative, libertarian or free marketer, there’s no reason to be for or against [electric cars],” he says. “The real issue is whether the government should be pouring billions into them,” he says. “They should be chosen by consumers, based upon markets and their own needs … not by some ivory tower green industrial policy nitwits in Washington using others’ money.”

Strock agrees, noting that Ronald Reagan, “would be very skeptical of having the government subsidizing making a car — and then subsidizing buying it.”

Ultimately, my guess is those who see the electric car as a panacea are wrong — but so are those who see it as inherently evil. Electric cars won’t work everywhere or for everyone. But they might just be a part of the solution for some people — while others will continue driving cars with the internal combustion engine — a “hybrid” solution, so to speak.

By the way, I’m currently test driving the Chevy Volt. I took it for a spin last night, and found it to be a pleasurable experience. My main takeaway was that it’s very quiet. This weekend, I’m planning to drive it to dinner in Frederick, Maryland — so I can experience what it’s like when the battery dies and the extended-range gasoline engine kicks in.

Matt K. Lewis