Obama administration says electric-car goal achievable, but relies on unconfirmed data

By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 7, 2011; 8:20 PM

President Obama's goal of 1 million electric cars on the road within the next four years is achievable, according to an administration report to be released Tuesday, contradicting a finding last week from an industry panel.

The administration report finds that automakers are prepared to produce 1.2 million plug-in electric vehicles by 2015.

By contrast, a panel of industry leaders said that automakers' production plans are "currently insufficient" to meet the president's goal.

The opposing reports both attempted to tally electric-car production efforts, but differed over how many plug-in cars General Motors will manufacture and other matters. The administration used figures from media reports.

"When you start tallying up what the companies have said, the announced production capacity exceeds 1 million by 2015," said David Sandalow, assistant secretary for policy and international affairs at the Department of Energy. "The production capacity will not be a significant restraint in reaching the president's goal. This is an industry that is taking off around the world."

In his State of the Union address last month, Obama said he is aiming to get 1 million electric vehicles on the road by 2015. But just how fast automakers can produce the cars, and how quickly drivers will buy them, is unknown.

The goal of reaching 1 million plug-in cars by 2015 is very aggressive, compared with the introduction rates for the last major change in propulsion technology, hybrid cars. Hybrids, which are much closer to conventional cars than plug-in electrics, took eight years to reach the 1 million-car mark.

Last week, the panel of auto industry experts concluded that automakers' announced production efforts will fall short of Obama's goal. Their report tallied the announced production goals of manufacturers of electric cars.

The administration performed a similar calculation, but reached a different result. One of the key reasons is that the administration assumed that GM would annually be able to produce 120,000 Chevrolet Volts, a plug-in electric vehicle, starting in 2012. The 120,000 figure comes from a news report that GM would not confirm.

A GM spokesman on Monday night said the company is planning to produce 45,000 cars in 2012.

"Our production plan for 2012 is 45,000 units," spokesman Greg Martin said. "While we are looking to increase production, we're not confirming the speculation on what those volumes might be."

"These are estimates," Sandalow said. "We think these are reasonable estimates but they are based on news reports and official announcements."

Although the industry has the capacity to build 1 million electric vehicles by 2015, Sandalow said, there may be barriers to getting consumers to adopt the cars, which are expensive and can have limited range.

The $32,780 Leaf and the $41,000 Volt cost far more than a comparably sized car with a gas engine, which typically sells for $20,000. The battery range of the Leaf, which is all electric, is less than 100 miles, and places where batteries can be replenished are sparse at best. Also, it can take hours to recharge.

To overcome such barriers, the federal government is offering tax credits of as much as $7,500 per vehicle, an incentive that the president has proposed to turn into a rebate, so that it can be collected at the dealership.

He has also called for more federal support for research and development in the technology, and $200 million to help selected communities build recharging infrastructure to encourage residents to adopt the cars.

"There are uncertainties certainly in terms of consumer demand and public awareness," Sandalow said. "The president's proposals are designed to address those types of issues."

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