On June 11 and 12, the Brookings Institution and Google.org will host a conference entitled “Plug-in Electric Vehicles 2008: What Role for Washington?” The event represents the biggest gathering of national powerbrokers discussing the role of government regarding plug-in hybrid and electric vehicles. The list of attendees includes Senator John Kerry (D-Mass.); Representative John Dingell (D-Mich.); New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman; Jon Wellinghoff, commissioner, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission; and CEOs and top executives from Ford, General Motors, Federal Express, and Southern California Edison.

On the eve of the conference, HybridCars.com’s Bradley Berman spoke with David Sandalow, energy and environment scholar at Brookings, about hybrid technology, oil politics, and the responsibilities—and limitations—of government in changing how we power our cars. Sandalow is the former assistant secretary of state and senior director on the National Security Council in the Clinton Administration. He is also the author of Freedom From Oil: How the Next President Can End the United States’ Oil Addiction.

Picking Technology Winners

HybridCars.com: What role could technology have in breaking our national addition to oil?

David Sandalow: Technology plays a central role. We already have the technology we need to break our dependence on oil. The main challenge is getting out into the marketplace. Start with plug-in hybrid electric cars. We already have the first wave of these on the road with plug-in conversions of today’s conventional hybrids. In a couple of years, we’re going to see major manufacturers rolling these off the production line, and they are going to be bought like hotcakes. I think someday my grandkids will look at my kids and say, “What do you mean? You couldn’t plug in cars when you were young?”

Even with the most aggressive timeline for plug-in hybrids, we could be decades away from plug-in hybrids having any significant impact on oil use.

There’s no question. This change does not happen overnight. That’s been one of the challenges in the political arena. We expect quick fixes. But if we get going right now, we can solve this problem in a generation. That doesn’t mean no gasoline in our cars 25 years from now. But it means that car buyers will be able to purchase cars that take a variety of different kinds of fuels. Not just gasoline, but also electricity and biofuels. That’s transformational.

Is it government’s job to choose winning technologies, especially considering all the various corporate interests that influence the selection and the resulting legislation?

That’s a key question. No. Government should not pick technologies, but government can send signals to the market with respect to broad types of solutions. I think connecting vehicles to the electric grid is the broad type of solution that government should be promoting.

Government certainly shouldn’t get into mandating lithium ion batteries over nickel metal hydride batteries, or anything like that. But something as fundamental as the technology that will connect our vehicles to our enormous electric infrastructure, that’s a direction that government should head. I think they should do it with tax incentives, with federal procurement policies, and a variety of other tools.

So, your feeling is that government should not choose technologies, but aren’t plug-in hybrids a specific technology?

I think it’s a broad approach to connect cars to the electric grid to help power our vehicles.