Obama Scales Back Overly Ambitious Goals for Electric Car Use

In a 2009 executive order, the president had called for 1 million plug-in vehicles on the road by 2015, but poor sales and lower gas prices have intervened.

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US President Barack Obama speaks during a press conference in the Brady Briefing Room of the White House on April 23, 2015 in Washington, DC.

MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

President Barack Obama's long-standing goal to have a fully fuel-efficient government fleet and 1 million plug-in vehicles on the road will not be met.

With little fanfare, the president in March scaled back the ambitious goals laid out in 2009 that sought the million units on the road by 2015 as it became clear that technology and consumer interest were not keeping pace with his ideals. Sales and government purchases have failed to meet even lowered expectations, government sales data and U.S. sales data show.

Obama cut government purchase goals on March 19, but said the government will continue to work to improve fuel economy into the future. The U.S. bought about 24,816 electric and hybrid vehicles during Obama's presidency, or about 7 percent of government purchases in that time, according to data from the U.S. General Service Administration obtained by Bloomberg under a Freedom of Information Act request. U.S. consumers bought about 286,814 of those models from 2009 to 2014, or 3 percent of overall sales.

"The zealots, the hypesters, the enthusiasts created an environment that wasn't ever going to be a reality,'' said Brett Smith, who is a program director focused on sustainability at the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Michigan. "This got going in the summer of 2008 when gasoline was $5 a gallons in California. The world expected gasoline prices to go up and up and up and technology to solve it. Two of those things didn't happen.'' The failure highlights the challenge automakers are also facing in the U.S. market as consumers are reluctant to embrace technology necessary for the industry to meet a goal of 54.5 miles per gallon fleet average by 2025. The average was 31.5 mpg last year. Regulators and industry will review the 2025 goals next year to ensure they remain realistic.

Despite the changes in Obama's executive orders, GSA will continue to build on its efforts to provide a more environmentally sustainable fleet,” said Bill Toth, director of motor vehicle management for the GSA.

“Presently, commercially available electric and hybrid vehicles do not align with the most purchased vehicle segments for federal fleets” which are trucks, GSA said in a statement. “They also come with a higher acquisition cost compared to conventional vehicles.”

For the next 10-15 years the bulk of the fuel improvements will come from better gasoline engines and more use of hybrid technology, said Daniel Becker, director of the Safe Climate Campaign, a proponent of regulations requiring higher-mileage cars. Beyond that time frame, electric cars may begin to gain more acceptance and technology will be improved, he said.

“The ground is being laid for an electric car future,” he said. “But it’s not an electric car present.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the month when President Barack Obama scaled back the government's goals, and incorrectly described those goals as "mandates."

(Corrects date when Obama scaled back goals in second graph. Also changes "Without" in second graph to "With." Corrects nature of 2009 electric vehicles plan.)
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