When you start advocating Federally backed “moon shots” as a way to compensate for the shortcomings of American management, you know you are in deep doo doo.
Tom Friedman has a characteristically breathless article at at the New York Times arguing America better get off its duff because China is very serious about electric cars:
China is doing moon shots. Yes, that’s plural. When I say “moon shots” I mean big, multibillion-dollar, 25-year-horizon, game-changing investments. China has at least four going now: one is building a network of ultramodern airports; another is building a web of high-speed trains connecting major cities; a third is in bioscience, where the Beijing Genomics Institute this year ordered 128 DNA sequencers — from America — giving China the largest number in the world in one institute to launch its own stem cell/genetic engineering industry; and, finally, Beijing just announced that it was providing $15 billion in seed money for the country’s leading auto and battery companies to create an electric car industry, starting in 20 pilot cities. In essence, China Inc. just named its dream team of 16-state-owned enterprises to move China off oil and into the next industrial growth engine: electric cars.
Not to worry. America today also has its own multibillion-dollar, 25-year-horizon, game-changing moon shot: fixing Afghanistan.
OK, so far, not unreasonable. But Friedman later argues the US needs to chase China in the electronic car biz:
The electric car industry is pivotal for three reasons, argues Shai Agassi, the C.E.O. of Better Place, a global electric car company that next year will begin operating national electric car networks in Israel and Denmark. First, the auto industry was the foundation for America’s manufacturing middle class. Second, the country that replaces gasoline-powered vehicles with electric-powered vehicles — in an age of steadily rising oil prices and steadily falling battery prices — will have a huge cost advantage and independence from imported oil. Third, electric cars are full of power electronics and software. “Think of the applications industry that will be spun out from electric cars,” says Agassi. It will be the iPhone on steroids.
Europe is using $7-a-gallon gasoline to stimulate the market for electric cars; China is using $5-a-gallon and naming electric cars as one of the industrial pillars for its five-year growth plan. And America? President Obama has directed stimulus money at electric cars, but he is unwilling to do the one thing that would create the sustained consumer pull required to grow an electric car industry here: raise taxes on gasoline. Price matters. Sure, the Moore’s Law of electric cars — “the cost per mile of the electric car battery will be cut in half every 18 months” — will steadily drive the cost down, says Agassi, but only once we get scale production going. U.S. companies can do that on their own or in collaboration with Chinese ones. But God save us if we don’t do it at all.
Um, let’s consider a little backstory Friedman omits. His own paper, the New York Times, reported in April 2009 that China was out to become the the leader in electric and hybrid cars:
Chinese leaders have adopted a plan aimed at turning the country into one of the leading producers of hybrid and all-electric vehicles within three years, and making it the world leader in electric cars and buses after that.
The goal, which radiates from the very top of the Chinese government, suggests that Detroit’s Big Three, already struggling to stay alive, will face even stiffer foreign competition on the next field of automotive technology than they do today.
The big reason the US is behind in the electric car game is Detroit, and the battle was lost some time ago. (Separately, the time for higher gas prices was also some time ago, but the then Big Three and a host of others would have fought it tooth and nail. And think we’re gonna impose gas taxes now in the middle of a deep downturn and worry about adequate demand? Sure, there’s a way to have compensation elsewhere, mainly offsets to other taxes middle and lower income people face, but that’s too many moving parts to be realistic unless you had a well disciplined party with a decent majority in Congress behind that agenda, conditions notably absent right now).
In 1993, I did due diligence on an advanced battery venture on behalf of a major hedge fund, visited Detroit, and drove an electric car made by a GM consortium. At the time, there was a mandate in California as well as the Northeast scheduled to come into effect in a few years to have 2% of cars sold be electric. Now the idea of forcing a sales goal seems silly, unless you had some obvious targets. The early vehicles were best suited for city use (no worry about your car running out of juice on the interestate). Public transport, delivery services (think the Post Office, UPS, Fedex) and government fleets were logical buyers, particularly since they also solved the chicken and egg problem of charging station infrastructure (fleets go home at night and can be recharged in relatively few locations). But the states did nothing to help create a market.
GM spent over $1.5 billion manufacturing and marketing the EV1, its electric car, despite its ambivalence (at least when I was investigating, which prior to the 1996-2000 opportunity to lease the car in Arizona and California). GM did costly consumer marketing in those states, despite being able to manufacture only 600 cars a year. California also welched on its promise to lease electric cars and trucks in meaningful numbers and wouldn’t install public chargers.
Another issue was the batteries were not ready for prime time (I had looked at all the competing technologies adn recommended against investment for that reason and the lack of enthusiasm for the iniative). Batteries don’t do well in the cold. And electric engines don’t throw off heat the way an internal combustion one does, so the early EVs had small gas fired heaters to warm the passenger area.
However, success also depends on commitment to overcome obstacles, and GM had already divested key bits of relevant technology BEFORE the EV1 launch. Which begs the question, how hard were they really trying to make this work (for instance, did they press the California government when it started waffling?).
We have ceded leadership in battery technology to Asia, and reader Keenan pointed out, also the know-how for the related drive trains:
h torque DC servomotors are the sine qua non for electric vehicles.
High torque performance is achieved via magnets made of alloys of various so called “rare earth” elements. Prominent among the alloys are samarium-cobalt and neodymium-iron-boron. GM held a majority interest in Magnaquench, an Indiana company with expertise in such materials and magnet fabrication. GM however decided that electric motors did not fit into its “core competencies.”.
While the article highlights the aspects of defense technology, the commercial / industrial side of the business is every bit as important in today’s world of economic warfare.
Magnequench had a unique expertise in the manufacture of high-powered neodymium magnets, which it pioneered in the 1980s for its parent company, General Motors, to use in airbags and mechanical sensors. When GM restructured in the early 1990s, the company began to divest itself of subsidiaries that were not in its “core competence.” Magnequench, in spite of its high-tech pedigree—and the fact that it provided critical component parts to “precision guided munitions” that were then in great demand by the U.S. Department of Defense—was put up for sale.
Reportedly, Magnequench supplied 85 percent of the neodymium magnets used in servo motors for PGMs, but neodymium magnets are far more important and ubiquitous than their use in advanced weaponry might suggest. They are the sole reason high-speed, high-capacity computer data storage devices can work. They are found in literally every computer in the world, and in 2004, Magnequench, together with its merger partner NEO Material Technologies (and its integrated Chinese joint-venture partners), supplied about 80 percent of the world market share of neodymium and rare-earth oxide powders used in those magnets.
So when GM put Magnequench on the block in 1995, who should come up with the $70 million asking price? An investment consortium headed by Archibald Cox Jr. (son of the illustrious Watergate prosecutor) acting in concert with two Chinese state-owned metals firms, San Huan New Material and China National Nonferrous Metals Import and Export Company (CNNMIEC), which had been pestering GM to sell Magnequench since 1993.…
Magnequench’s Chinese owners cleverly reinterpreted the CFIUS conditions. One Magnequench employee reported that shortly after the Chinese took over, Magnequench’s neodymium-iron-boron magnet production line was “duplicated in China” and that, after the Chinese “made sure that it worked, they shut down” the U.S. production in Indiana. The employee added, “I believe the Chinese entity wanted to shut the plant down from the beginning. They are rapidly pursuing this technology.”
So this vignette reveals the degree to which Detroit helped seal its own fate. It went along with the electric car mandate fully hoping its 2% goal would make it a non-starter (that was the line I heard, anyway, that the cars would be costly enough that the target was pretty certain to be unrealistic) and played the game out, rather than try to influence the legislation so as to get a program that might be viable for the states as well as the carmakers.