Realities Behind Obama’s Electric Car Photo Op

When President Barack Obama walked into Southern California Edison’s electric-vehicle test facility in Pomona today, he visited what may be the highest concentration of electric vehicles in North America. It was a photo op, of course. The president’s goal, said White House spokesman Robert Gibbs, was to highlight the role of plug-in cars in creating “clean energy jobs” that will spur economic growth.

Ford Escape PHEV />

Southern California Edison’s maintains a fleet of 20 Ford Escape Hybrid sport utility vehicles that have been converted to plug-ins. SCE is testing the real-world practicality of the Escape vechiles as part of a large fleet of electric cars and plug-in hybrids.

But there was much for Obama to learn in Pomona. SCE’s Electric Vehicle Technical Center has gained huge real-world experience from testing and operating a breathtaking array of hybrid and electric-drive vehicles from a dozen manufacturers. Over 10 years, the center has put more than 17 million miles on everything from now-decade-old electric Toyota RAV4 vehicles to its latest fleet of Ford Escape Plug-In Hybrids.

It’s notable that Obama didn’t visit Detroit, but Southern California. Rather than focus on a single “halo car”—the Chevrolet Volt from General Motors, or Chrysler’s array of prototypes, including its Dodge Circuit sports car—the president visited one of the few sites where dozens of people use a variety of different electric vehicles every single day.

“These cars of tomorrow require the batteries of tomorrow, I am announcing that the Department of Energy is launching a $2 billion competitive grant program under the Recovery Act that will spark the manufacturing of the batteries and parts that run these cars, build or upgrade the factories that will produce them, and in the process, create thousands of jobs right here in America. Show us that your idea or your company is best-suited to meet America’s challenges, and we will give you a chance to prove it. ”

President Barack Obama
Speaking today at the Edison Electric Vehicle Technical Center

Are 1 Million Plug-ins by 2015 Feasible?

During his campaign, Obama promised to put 1 million plug-in hybrids and electric vehicles on US roads by 2015. That’s an aggressive goal, considering that it took a decade for global production of hybrid cars to pass the 1 million mark after the first Toyota Prius rolled off the line in 1997.

Toyota RAV4 EV />

SCE and Toyota began the testing of RAV4 EVs in February 2000. The goal of SCE’s Electric Vehicle Technical Center is to obtain data on costs, maintenance, battery life, charging issues and other factors with EVs that are used continually long-term.

Most analysts expect plug-in vehicles to follow a similar growth curve to hybrids, though government subsidies and tax credits may increase the rate by compensating for the high cost of the battery packs over the first few years. But remember, Obama’s goal applies to the United States alone.

Estimates for annual production of plug-ins—all of them global—are all over the map:

  • The industry analysis firm Global Insight estimates that in 2015, 1.7 million standard hybrids will be built. But only 100,000 of that total will be plug-ins—and the number of pure electric vehicles will remain almost unnoticeable.
  • More optimistically, European parts maker Robert Bosch LLC expects that in 2015, global production of electric vehicles (plug-in hybrids and pure EVs) will total between 300,000 and 500,000 units a year.
  • General Motors said that it expects to sell 10,000 Volts in its first full year (2011) and 60,000 per year after that (2012 and beyond).
  • French carmaker Renault—which is partnered with Nissan and has perhaps the most aggressive plans for pure electric cars—expects to sell more than 100,000 EVs a year starting in 2012.

Other carmakers, especially the Germans—who have invested heavily in diesels as their “green” technology—scoff at electric vehicles, citing the enormous cost of the battery packs. Just last week, Volkswagen CEO Stefan Jacoby estimated in a speech at UCLA that it could take 35 years for the world to fully embrace electric vehicles.

Are Batteries Included?

To be fair, most analysts expect the growth rate for electric-drive vehicles to accelerate greatly between 2015 and 2020. Boston Consulting Group’s December report, The Comeback of the Electric Car? How Real, How Soon, and What Must Happen Next, offers three scenarios for 2020.

Mitsubishi iMiEV />

In 2008, Mitsubishi began work with SCE to evaluate the iMiEV electric vehicle, Mitsubishi plans to sell roughly 2,000 iMiEVs in Japan in 2009, with fleet sales taking priority. There are no certain plans to bring the vehicle to the United States.

Under the one deemed most likely, oil will have risen to $150 a barrel, concern over global CO2 will be higher than today, and government policies will encourage electric vehicles and extended-range EVs—which will each take 3 percent of the market, or roughly 2 million units a year.

Many analysts suggest the world may not have the capacity to build the necessary number of large lithium ion battery packs—even if the consumer demand is there. Thus far, global lithium cell manufacturing is located almost entirely in Asia, giving Japanese, Korean, and Chinese carmakers an edge.

Legislation passed last fall will encourage the development of lithium cell manufacturing in North America. But six years is a short window in which to build up to a dozen full-scale lithium ion cell plants—which typically cost $150 million to $300 million each. Reports from Washington, DC, suggest that the president is keenly aware of the industrial infrastructure that will be necessary.

Plug-Ins at Pomona

On his tour of SCE’s Pomona, Calif. facility, Obama had a chance to see hybrid and electric vehicles that range from the egg-shaped Mitsubishi iMiEV to hybrid-electric bucket trucks, delivery vans, and other commercial equipment. Within SCE’s fleet are 20 Ford Escape Hybrid sport-utility vehicles that have been converted to plug-ins with an electric range of up to 20 miles from their lithium ion battery packs.

Those Escape Plug-Ins came from a 2007 announcement by Ford that it would work with SCE to test the real-world practicality of plug-in hybrids. A year’s worth of testing must have paid off. Last month, Ford announced that it would accelerate its electric vehicle efforts.

Ed Kjaer, SCE’s irrepressible (and occasionally profane) director of electric transportation— an EV proponent for 20 years, who has also worked in the auto industry—brings a sense of what’s practical to the sometimes uber-optimistic world of electric cars.

Kjaer believes the impact of electric-drive cars goes far beyond the immediate impact of the first few plug-ins to hit the grid. He has suggested, for instance, that when large lithium ion cells hit mass production, they may enable home energy storage systems that combine photovoltaic power generation with lithium battery storage. This would allow utilities to disconnect homes from the grid for a few hours at peak demand, letting the houses rely on their stored power until demand eased.

We’ll read the news reports tomorrow to see who Obama talked to, and how he reacted to what he saw—and drove. We suspect he liked the experience of driving on pure electricity. But there’s something he probably liked even more: The potential for hundreds of thousands of new green jobs to help reverse the worst economic downturn in generations.


  • Doug Korthof

    They kept Obama away from ordinary Pomona Citizens who drove to the event in their OWN Electric cars. The cars exist, the NiMH batteries exist and last longer than the life of the car, all we need is production.

  • John Rees

    I would be concerned about VW support if there is a problem. View my VW experience at:
    http://www.reesphotos.com/VW/

  • Samie

    Looking at cost of gas hybrids, plug-ins, and EV’s it may be wiser to focus on traditional hybrid sales along with getting EV’s and long-range plugings out to the market for those willing to pay a premium to drive some of the first mass produced EV’s.

    I still say remove V8′s put diesel engines in trucks or use a TDI system for some cars, take luxury cars/SUV’s drop a V6 in them with a full hybrid system to offset some performance issues and generate in general higher mpgs and less C02′s which could be done at the same price or less for the current cost of paying for a V8/V10 engine in some performance vehicles. If the industry would decide to move to more hybrid systems in luxury vehicles, hybrids would scaled up in production and its just my belief that we could see more innovation and cost reductions for conventional hybrids and EV’s. Eventually EV’s will have greater gains in technology and cost reductions over current plugin concepts.

  • ACAgal

    I wish I could agree with you, on the diesel, because I could grow bio-diesel crops.

    Diesel has not overcome the particulate residues that damage lungs, blood vessels, heart, etc. I fear that clean diesel, like clean coal, is a myth.

  • hybridgreg

    I am pleased that these alternative fuel cars are getting more positive press. I think, though, if we are to convert to electric-only vehicles, we will need more than just an edict by the federal government. A decade of data has confirmed the fact that Americans are not ready to purchase electric-only vehicles, in mass. Simply “wishing it were so” is not going to work. What will work is to understand that consumers are very leary of a battery powered electric “anythng”. Consumers know that their cell phones, ipods, laptops, electric razors, flashlights and, even, car batteries go dead at the most inconvenient times. They are not going to pay good money for a car that will not get them work in the morning because “the grid” failed the previous night or the dog pulled the plug on the charger.

    What will work is to build the confidence of the car buying public by reducing the threat of power outages, promote hybrid technology with longer range in all-electric mode (plug-in technology) and by bringing an end to threats of potential skyrocketing electric bills.

    Consumers remember when diesel cars and trucks were supposed to be a hedge against the, then, rising costs of gasoline. These trusting consumers woke up and found that after they had paid the extra cost of the diesel engine ($5k), the government increased the tax on diesel and the oil companies spiked the price of diesel above the cost of gasoline (even though everyone knows that diesel is less expensive to produce). These smart consumers will not get sucked into putting all their transportation dollars into an energy source controlled by a public utility sysem that (just a few years ago, in California) was so gullible it tied all Californians to higher electric bills, for years, with their mismanagement. When it comes to energy these days, just like a stock portfolio, diversification works in cars, too.

    I believe a bridge (to the goal of all-electric car acceptance) has to be made using hybrid cars. As Hybrids are able to travel greater and greater distances between plug-in charges, confidence in electric cars will certainly grow. When the “tipping point” is reached, the consumer will come running to get on-board. However, if these same consumers are forced into electric cars before they are ready, they will prove that they are more than a match for dictates. I hope wisdom prevails over ideology. If we are going to rush into something, let’s rush into higher mileage hybrids and all-electric will surely follow.

  • johan young

    I’m just to start in write article about hybrid cars (i’ve great interest about that). In my country, (Indonesia) not yet to plan develop car industrial hybrid. So…Is so difficult to found out more about hybrid cars.

  • PETE EDWARDS

    What about Cobasys?

  • Jon L

    Only $150-300 million per battery plant? That’s a pittence comparered to the bailout money that has gone literaly nowhere to benefit the current state of the economy. Building these plants will put people in jobs for the long and short term – from design, construction, manufacturing, and long term plant employment.

    Did we off-shore the moon landing? Keep these projects here close to home.

    So easy a teenager can do it… http://www.driveev.com/jeepev/idea.php

  • Pasan Gaus

    The main page photo of President Obama looks like he is having a Gastro-Intestinal issue.

  • Svemir

    Welcome electric cars! This may be the right immediate solution for 0 polution in the cities. With more and more clean sources of electricity from wind, solar, tide, waves, river underflows and geothermal sources we have chance to slow down if not to reverse global warming process.

    Name “Southern California Edison’s electric-vehicle test facility” is rather sarcastic because Mr. Edison had demonstated elephants killings with AC/DC to prove how this Mr. TESLA inventions of double current electricity are dangerous. Mr. Edison promoted single current energy production and now the center for electric vehicles is named with this great American inventor but opponent of TESLA’s electric invention which includes electro motor used in electric cars. I am still surprised how this unjustice happens over and over again. Well Tesla Roadster is great hommage to Tesla.

    Still thanks to the same Center for promotion of electric cars! Keep the good work!

    Svemir Vranko, Croatia

  • hybridgreg

    In response to your trip down memory lane, keep in mind that the control system in all hybrids and the storage batteries are all DC. I think Edison would be proud that over the years BOTH AC and DC have a prominent role in this new technology