Apr 30, 2009 (From the CalCars-News archive)
STATEMENT: "CalCars.org and the broad coalition that's been promoting plug-in hybrids -- and hoping that the auto industry crisis wouldn't derail their production -- got a reassuring sign today. It came at President Barack Obama's 100th Day Press Conference. In the last question, the President was asked how the federal government, as an interim part-owner of private companies, might shape their products. He picked plug-in hybrids as the model for his hopes and expectations. He cited them as his way to demonstrate his confidence in American industry -- its resources, capabilities, expertise, and future." [Transcript and additional comments below.]
HERE'S WHAT HE SAID -- the video and transcript show him pausing, then choosing PHEVs (full transcript follows):
...like any investor, the American taxpayer has the right to scrutinize what's being proposed and make sure that their money is not just being thrown down the drain. And so we've got to strike a balance. I don't want to be -- I'm not an auto engineer. I don't know how to create a -- affordable, well-designed, plug-in hybrid, but I know that if the Japanese can design a -- affordable, well-designed hybrid then, doggone it, the American people should be able to do the same. So my job is to ask the auto industry: Why is it you guys can't do this? And in some cases they're starting to do it..."
BACKGROUND: We've been saying for a long time that the car industry could save itself, after a century of fossil fuel dependence, by producing vehicles running on cleaner cheaper, domestically-generated electricity. We saw the new administration come into office hoping to help facilitate that shift.
OUR WORRIES IN RECENT WEEKS: Since the introduction March 30 of the Automotive Task Force, we've expressed concern about the advice the President was getting about the intersection between the auto industry's crisis and the opportunity for carmakers to begin a rapid transition to plug-in vehicles. During the campaign, the transition, and the early days of the Administration, we've seen Obama's team understanding this moment as similar to the shift after Pearl Harbor, when the auto industry in one year switched from building cars and trucks to planes and tanks. We hoped that vision would continue as the automotive industry crisis continued.
BOSTON CONSULTING GROUP'S ROLE: We became concerned when the Boston Consulting Group was retained to advise the Automotive Task Force. We presented a critical analysis of BCG's view of the role of plug-in vehicles, saying that the firm was relying on incorrect data and a business-as-usual approach. (Our April 24 posting on CalCars-News http://www.calcars.org/news-archive.html links to our critique, their response, and our reply.) And we saw a Washington Post editorial writer use BCG's data to conclude, "The Volt: Not Ready to Roll" -- see http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/04/28/AR2009042801191.html for the story and many comments . We hoped this weak echo, from a writer whose alternatie was to stick to gasoline vehicles -- just drive less, buy smaller cars and improve engines -- was not going to influence decisionmakers.
OUR HOPES FOR TODAY'S ENDORSEMENT: We are now encouraged to hope that whatever happens to GM and Chrysler on financing and corporate restructuring, the Task Force will promote rather than hinder automakers' recent decisions to shift as rapidly as possible toward the electrification of transportation. [And on a personal note, I chose to watch the press conference rather than a movie as a fun activity on my birthday. After seven years of working to promote PHEVs, I feel like I got a great birthday present from the Shareholder-In-Chief!]
COMPLETE TRANSCRIPT OF FINAL QUESTION -- from http://edition.cnn.com/2009/POLITICS/04/29/obama.transcript/
STAFF: Last question. MR. OBAMA: Jonathan Weisman, you get -- you get the last word. Where are you? There you are. QUESTION: Thank you, sir. MR. OBAMA: Yeah.
QUESTION: You are currently the chief shareholder of a couple of very large mortgage giants. You are about to become the chief shareholder of a car company, probably two.
I'm wondering, what kind of shareholder are you going to be? What is the government's role, as the keeper of public -- public trusts and bonds in -- in soon-to-be public companies again?
MR. OBAMA: Well, I think our -- our first role should be shareholders that are looking to get out. (Laughter.) You know, I don't want to run auto companies. I don't want to run banks. I've got two wars I've got to run already. I've got more than enough to do. So the sooner we can get out of that business, the better off we're going to be.
We are in unique circumstances. You had the potential collapse of the financial system, which would have decimated our economy, and so we had to step in. As I've said before, I don't agree with every decision that was made by the previous administration when it came to TARP, but the need for significant intervention was there, and it was appropriate that we moved in.
With respect to the auto companies, I believe that America should have a functioning, competitive auto industry. I don't think that taxpayers should simply put -- attach an umbilical cord between the U.S. Treasury and the auto companies so that they are constantly getting subsidies, but I do think that helping them restructure at this unique period when sales -- you know, the market has essentially gone from 14 million down to 9 million, I don't think that there's anything inappropriate about that.
My goal on all this is to help these companies make some tough decisions based on realistic assumptions about economic growth, about their market share, about what that market's going to look like; to prevent systemic risk that would affect everybody; and as soon as their situations are stabilized and the economy is less fragile, so that those systemic risks are diminished, to get out; find some private buyers and --
QUESTION: And could you shape the products and services that are on offer?
MR. OBAMA: I don't think that we should micro-manage, but I think that, like any investor, the American taxpayer has the right to scrutinize what's being proposed and make sure that their money is not just being thrown down the drain. And so we've got to strike a balance. I don't want to be -- I'm not an auto engineer. I don't know how to create a -- affordable, well-designed, plug-in hybrid, but I know that if the Japanese can design a -- affordable, well-designed hybrid then, doggone it, the American people should be able to do the same.
So my job is to ask the auto industry: Why is it you guys can't do this? And in some cases they're starting to do it, but they've got these legacy costs. You know, there are some terrific U.S. cars being made, both by Chrysler and GM. Question is, you know, give me a plan so that you're building off your strengths and you're projecting out to where that market's going to be.
I actually think if -- if you look at the trends, that those auto companies that emerge from this crisis, when you start seeing the pent-up demand for autos coming back, they're going to be in a position to really do well, globally, not just here in the United States. So I just want to help them get there.