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Lane: The electric-car mistake

Published: Thursday, Feb. 14, 2013 5:30 a.m. CST

The Obama administration’s electric-car fantasy finally may have died on the road between Newark, Del., and Milford, Conn.

The New York Times’ John M. Broder reported Friday that the Tesla Model S electric car he was test-driving repeatedly ran out of juice, partly because cold weather reduces the battery’s range by about 10 percent.

Broder’s trip turned into a nightmare, including a stretch with the conked-out car riding the back of a flatbed truck.

Tesla chief executive Elon Musk fired back Monday, tweeting that Broder’s report is a “fake” and that “vehicle logs” show he “didn’t actually charge to max and took a long detour.”

The Times is standing by its story. My take is that even if Musk is 100 percent right and Broder is 100 percent wrong – which I doubt – Musk loses.

Who wants a $101,000 car that might die just because you feel like taking “a long detour”?

President Obama repeatedly declared that, with enough federal aid, we can put a million electric vehicles on the road by 2015. His administration has invested about $5 billion in grants, guaranteed loans – including $465 million for Tesla – and tax incentives to buyers.

Yet Americans bought just 71,000 plug-in hybrids or all-electric vehicles in the past two years, according to GreenCarReports.com. That’s about a third as many as the Energy Department forecast in a 2011 report that attempted to explain why Obama’s goal was not preposterous.

Federal billions cannot overcome the fact that electric vehicles and plug-in electric hybrids meet few, if any, of real consumers’ needs. Compared with gas-powered cars, they deliver inferior performance at much higher cost. As an American Physical Society symposium on battery research concluded in June: “Despite their many potential advantages, all-electric vehicles will not replace the standard American family car in the foreseeable future.”

If you don’t believe the scientists, listen to Takeshi Uchiyamada, the “father” of the Toyota Prius: “Because of its shortcomings – driving range, cost and recharging time – the electric vehicle is not a viable replacement for most conventional cars.”

Nor do electric cars promise much in the way of greenhouse-gas reduction, as long as they rely on a power grid that is still mostly fired by fossil fuels.

As for Vice President Joe Biden’s 2009 forecast of “billions and billions and billions of dollars in good, new jobs,” the electric car factory at which he made that statement sits idle. Ditto the taxpayer-backed Michigan factory of battery maker LG Chem. Two Energy Department-funded lithium-ion battery makers have gone bankrupt.

There’s simply no denying that the administration’s electric-vehicle project was a mistake.

But it’s worth asking precisely what kind of mistake (beyond eminently foreseeable and terribly expensive). As Bruce Springsteen once sang: “Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true, or is it something worse?”

I accept the president’s good intentions. He didn’t set out to rip off the public. Nor was the electric-car dream a Democrats-only delusion. Several Republican pols shared it, too.

Rather, the debacle is a case study in unchecked righteousness. The administration assumed the worthiness and urgency of its goals. Americans should want electric cars, and therefore they would, apparently.

Energy Secretary Steven Chu, he of the Nobel Prize in physics, epitomized the regnant blend of sanctimony and technocratic hubris. He once told journalist Michael Grunwald that photosynthesis is “too damn inefficient,” and that DOE might help correct that particular error of evolution.

The department has recently backed away from the million-car target, in favor of reducing battery costs to $300 per kilowatt hour by 2015 (from $650 today). Even this seems dubious, given the APS symposium’s view that “only incremental improvements can be expected” in lithium-ion batteries.

Chu is on his way out but still dreaming. “For the engineers in the room or those who follow this, you might be saying to yourself, ‘What are they smoking?’ “ he remarked at the Washington Auto Show. “We’re not smoking anything. They are ambitious goals but they are achievable goals.”

I might add that Chu does not own a car.

• Charles Lane is a member of The Washington Post’s editorial board.

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