Can The Modern Electric Car Be Traced To Ronald Reagan?

If a certain view of history is to be believed, then the 40th President of United States, was a linchpin in the push toward sustainable motoring leading right up to the advent of today’s growing electric car segment.

And, if so, it’s quite ironic considering Reagan – who served as president from 1981-89 – is largely held up as a champion of Republican ideals, and many sympathetic to said ideals have demonized cars like the Chevy Volt as symbolic of government policies gone wrong.

But how is Reagan tied into the whole idea of green motoring? Well back when he was governor of California – 1967-75 – Reagan signed legislation that led to the creation of the California Air Resources Board (CARB) – and then consistently defended its right to set de facto policy for autos sold in the U.S.

CARB is largely credited for introducing rules mandating the sale of Zero Emissions Vehicles (ZEVs) in the Golden State (in other words, electric cars). And it’s largely from CARB’s stance that electric cars have been able to flourish in a manner not seen since the early 1900s.

At least this is the thrust of an argument presented by Pulitzer-prize winning author Daniel Yergin’s book, titled, The Quest: Energy, Security and the Remaking of the Modern World.

In it, he observes that Arie Haagen-Smit, a former Caltech chemistry professor, who is recognized as the “Father of Smog” (research), was appointed by Reagan’s office as CARB’s first chairman in 1968.

As Yergin wrote, Haagen-Smit began seeking ways to combat a problem he’d been dismayed by since the mid-1950s, when he observed, “a dense blue-gray haze … settled over and suffocated the Los Angeles Basin.” In the worst of those days, LAX would be closed, the author wrote, and kids’ phys-ed and recess periods would be canceled.

On the flip side, Reagan has also been cast as a key antagonist to sustainable mobility, with critics frequently citing the relaxation of Corporate Average Fuel Economy Standards and the de-regulation of the U.S. oil industry during his tenure in the White House.

According to an opinion piece based around Yergin’s thesis in The Daily Caller, Reagan serves as a sort of Rorschach test as to whether he was a hero or villain – but there remain plenty of indicators that he was also a key advocate for cleaner air in the early days as well.

“Reagan was definitely strong on environmental protection as governor of California in ways that are often forgotten,” remarked James Strock, who was the first secretary of the California Environmental Protection Agency and later, a White House official during Reagan’s term. “He was always protective as president of CARB’s right to set stricter standards than federal [guidelines]. The automakers had hoped they could get [Reagan] to override [CARB] authority. They were out of luck.”

But to counterbalance the view again, the prospect of subsidies – these and government bailouts have been called serious wrongheadedness by EV opponents more recently – may have been more of a sticking point even to Reagan, according to The Daily Caller. Fairly enough, it noted Strock also said Ronald Reagan, “would be very skeptical of having the government subsidizing making a car – and then subsidizing buying it.”

However, current smearing against the move toward electrification aside, the main point is that electrified powertrains, although yet a budding technology, are morally and ethically neutral. They therefore do not deserve to be castigated as a “political punching bag” as GM CEO Dan Akerson recently told a Republican subcommittee regarding the Volt.

Further, the underlying premise of “energy independence” and “green cars” as represented by electrified vehicles would have still been seen as defensible, even by the now-lionized Ronald Reagan.

So there you have it: Ronald Reagan, like Barack Obama, would have been pro-EV. Still up for debate are the many finer points of how to get there from here.

Source: The Daily Caller via Green Car Reports.

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  • Citizen Mike

    Like many of his generation, Reagan was a fan of science fiction … some of his ideas came true, others didn’t.

  • Lad

    By his record, Reagan wasn’t for improving our middle-class. He was a union-busting, Big Oil supporter. All this appears to be a stretch for some guy to need a story deadline.

  • Kelly

    @rkb Oh no, you’re right. Smearing isn’t really happening against EVs. This is obviously a biased column. That’s all I have time for now. Bye bye. Gotta tune back to Fox News for my next report from Neil Cavuto and Eric Bolling.

  • James Davis

    If just signing an EPA bill makes Regan the father of the modern electric car, then Carter would be the father of the modern solar panel. You remember them, the ones Regan ripped off the roof of the White House and directed the clean energy funding to coal, oil, and nuclear. Doing that would also make Regan the father of dirty energy, wouldn’t it, and putting those two together would make Reagan an oxymoron, or maybe just a moron?

    If you want to make Regan the father of the modern electric car, then you will have to make Carter the father of all modern clean energy research and production, and that would include the electric car. So, make Carter the father of the modern electric car and make Regan the father of the hybrid fossil fuel car like the Chevy Volt. Since the CEO of GM is a republican, then making Regan the father of dirty/clean vehicles, like the Volt, makes more sense than making him the father of the all clean Nissan Leaf.

  • Van

    Interesting and thought fueling article. The building blocks appear to be (1) Reagan lived in smoggy LA, (2) Reagan approved government action to address the problem (3) he approved CARB and put a real environmentalist in charge, (4) this led to greater research into zero emission vehicles, i.e. electrics and electric hybrids.

    However, the actual scientific breakthrough, the lithium battery, did not occur until about the time Bush 43 became President, and Bush did not foster growth, but instead diverted attention with the “hydrogen” economy boondoggle.

    Many believe the second generation EV batteries will cost less than $200 per KWh, and be about twice as powerful, i.e packing nearly twice the KWh of capacity in the same volume or weight as our first generation batteries.

    Bottom line as observed by others true environmental protection does not run counter to Republican principles, but using environmental protection as a Trojan horse for overturning economic freedom does.

  • Shines

    Did you have to put such a big picture of Reagan in this article? Jeesh – creeps me out…

  • rkb

    Regan the father of the electric car? Any complex concept has multiple sources and conditions, and the article did a good job of pointing this out.

  • rkb

    Good point that it’s inaccurate to establish one’s environmental credentials simply by whichever political party (if any) one supports (after all, look at who established the EPA).On the other hand, I’m not sure it’s sufficiently accurate to use the phrase, “smearing against the move toward electrification…” This doesn’t do much for the credibility or the objectivity of the column. Many good reasons exist for people to question current or expected electrical car technology, and to question subsidizing it so heavily. Using it as a Rorschach test for whether one is environmentally conscious or not seems a bit of a stretch.

    This Forum has an excellent goal, and should be a unifying Forum rather than being dragged into the negative divisiveness that modern partisan politics has become.

    Pushing current electrics may not even be the best way to decrease US fuel use. As one example, a rough calculation suggests that going from a 20 mpg car to a 33 mpg car will save about as much fuel as going from a 50 mpg car to one that uses no gas at all. Considerably more people would likely make the former switch than the latter, and it might make as much sense to subsidize the former as the latter. For some people, pure electric cars, even if you include the Volt, seem like costly ways to save a little money (and once the Volt’s batteries run down after 35 miles or so, you don’t get especially good fuel mileage anyway). For some, currently available electrics seem like $15,000 cars with $30,000 propulsion systems.

    If you want to buy an electric, that’s great, but don’t say that anyone who doesn’t want to buy one, or who doesn’t want to subsidize your purchase, is somehow automatically anti-environmental.

  • Tony

    “the main point is that electrified powertrains, although yet a budding technology, are morally and ethically neutral.”

    You are coming tantalizingly close to demonstrating a level of understanding of what motivates conservatives with respect to energy policy that could make it much more difficult for you to be critical of us going forward.

    The fact remains that conservatives are AT LEAST as enthusiastic about clean air and energy independence as the greenest left-wing politician you could possibly find. Where we part ways – and always have – is in how we view the government’s role (and, specifically, the federal government’s role) in bringing about our common goals. We take the position, based entirely in fact and pragmatism, that the federal role must be limited, both because the constitution says it must be, and because historically, without a single exception, less federal involvement has always produced a better outcome.

    The Volt is actually an excellent example. Recall that the vast majority of the R&D on the Volt took place during the tenure of George W. Bush. I was enthusiastically anticipating it’s entrance into the market for most of those years, and even now I don’t believe that enthusiasm was misplaced.

    It seems pretty clear to me that the Volt’s failure has everything to do with the changes that took place both at GM and in the political environment in general immediately preceding the car hitting the market. I’m referring to the policy changes introduce by the Obama administration, but primarily to the new leadership that took over GM as a result of the bailout. The anecdotal evidence for this view is strong enough that at the very least, the burden must surely be on those who would absolve the administration to prove their view correct. As far as I’m concerned, the fact remains that had we had a hypothetical third Bush term, the Volt might have made it to market a little bit later, but it would have gotten there a better car that would be more successful in the marketplace.

    I’d also like to point out, since it is so very important and so almost universally misunderstood, the sharp contrast between the powers of the federal government versus those of state governments. CARB is able to exist, and was created and supported by Reagan, because the authority it wields is granted to the state of California in that state’s constitution. Not to go off on a tangent, but the same is true of the state of Massachusetts with respect to Romneycare’s individual insurance mandate. It is part of the fundamental nature of the structure of our federal government that it (properly) wields very little power relative to the states. Generally anything that affects the day to day lives of people should be decided as close to those people as possible. The most sensible fuel efficiency standard for California may not be the most sensible for somewhere else. Reserving the right to regulate such things to the states was an implicit recognition of that fact.

    Thus Reagan’s support of CARB should not be particularly surprising. It is in no way unconservative. Indeed, what, other than a state-level agency for regulating fuel economy, would you expect from a conservative – who by definition respects the rights of states to exercise without federal interference those powers guaranteed them by the US constitution?


  • Tony

    “However, the actual scientific breakthrough, the lithium battery, did not occur until about the time Bush 43 became President, and Bush did not foster growth, but instead diverted attention with the “hydrogen” economy boondoggle.”

    Actually Bush did foster Li battery growth. His energy policy, even the watered down version he was able to get through congress, is the only reason the Volt was able to get as far as it did.

  • Van

    Hi Tony, G. W. Bush did not foster, but hindered the development of Lithium Battery production. Money was diverted to fool cells. Truth matters.

    “W” did a lot of good things, but he also missed the boat concerning fostering American Lithium Battery research and production facilities.
    Ask yourself why we who made the breakthrough buy our batteries from China, Korea and Japan?