President Obama's State of the Union address last week contained a surprising reference to natural gas cars and trucks and omitted any mention of electric vehicles, leaving some to wonder whether the administration is embracing a slight shift in policy.
"This was definitely an admission that we can't bet all our chips on one horse," Thilo Koslowski, vice president and distinguished analyst for Gartner Inc., told Design News. "It's a way of saying we need to be more diversified."
During last week's one-hour speech, Obama did not mention electric cars, instead saying that "this Congress can help by putting people to work building fueling stations that shift more cars and trucks from foreign oil to American natural gas." He also described natural gas as a "bridge fuel that can power our economy with less of the carbon pollution that causes climate change."
A White House fact sheet distributed on January 28 reinforced those statements. It said that the President supports an advanced vehicle proposal that would be "fuel neutral, allowing the private sector to determine if biofuels, electrification, natural gas, hydrogen, or other alternative fuels would be the best fit in different communities."
The President's position is a mild surprise, in light of his commitment to electric vehicles (EVs). In the 2011 State of the Union address, Obama set a goal for EV success, saying he wanted the US to "become the first country to have a million electric vehicles on the road by 2015." To date, however, less than 200,000 plug-in cars have reached US roads. In January, US Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz described the 2015 goal as "a stretch."
Some industry analysts believe that Obama's public acknowledgement of natural gas cars and trucks is a sign that the administration is expanding its view of alternative fuels. "It's probably a sign that things are getting a little more realistic," David Cole, chairman emeritus of the Center for Automotive Research, told Design News. "Given the vast supplies of natural gas we're discovering, you can't ignore it."
Natural gas vehicles have recently been gaining momentum in the automotive market. Ford's 2014 Transit Connect, E-Series vans, and F-Series pickups now offer compressed natural gas (CNG) packages. Similarly, GM's Chevy Silverado and Chrysler's Ram 2500 feature bi-fuel capacity. On the passenger side, Honda continues to market the Civic Natural Gas Vehicle and Chevy will roll out a bi-fuel version of the 2015 Impala. A recent study by Navigant Research also predicted a 16% compound annual growth rate for CNG vehicles by 2020.
Cole said CNG still suffers from low-energy density, causing its tanks to take up undue volume in passenger cars and offer reduced range. But he added that CNG is a "fabulous fuel" for spark-ignited engines. "It's really not a big deal for a car company to make a compressed natural gas vehicle," he told us.
Koslowski believes that Obama's omission of EVs in the State of the Union address was calculated, in part because the federal loans given to some of the electric car manufacturers and battery makers haven't paid off. "He's avoiding some criticism that has been directed at him, some of it rightfully, over the past couple of years," Koslowski said.
He added, however, that he considers the Obama Administration to still be staunchly committed to the creation of electric cars. "This is not about President Obama backing away his commitment," Koslowski said. "He's simply expanding his goals."