U.S. Department of Energy Wants to Get Into the Self-Driving Car Business

Amended rules allow its loan program to fund producers of autonomous vehicles

1 min read
U.S. Department of Energy Wants to Get Into the Self-Driving Car Business
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One week after Google made a splash with a demo of the latest iteration of its self-driving cars, we learned about the company’s plans to produce a limited number of custom-built prototypes with no steering wheels or control pedals. Right on its heels came news that California plans to issue driver’s licenses to experimental self-driving cars.

What didn’t garner as much attention was the banal side of the equation: a seemingly small change in U.S. federal government rules that could end up having a tremendous impact on the further development of the self-driving car. Last Thursday, Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz told the Detroit News that in response to inquiries from companies doing autonomous vehicle research, the qualifications for getting a loan via the Department of Energy’s Advanced Technology Vehicle Manufacturing program have been amended to include makers of driverless cars.

Moniz demurred when asked about a timetable for new disbursements from the high risk/reward program that has roughly $16 billion to lend. Though the program has a stellar track record—with notable successes including Elon Musk’s electric vehicle startup Tesla Motors—the government tightened its grip on the purse strings after Solyndra, another of the program’s recipients, went bankrupt in 2011.

If the current trend, with Google getting maximum governmental cooperation, persists, Google and its ilk will find a way to loosen those purse strings when the companies are ready to make the transition from using their own cash on experimental vehicles to getting government backing for, say, a limited number of custom-built prototypes.

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We Need More Than Just Electric Vehicles

To decarbonize road transport we need to complement EVs with bikes, rail, city planning, and alternative energy

11 min read
A worker works on the frame of a car on an assembly line.

China has more EVs than any other country—but it also gets most of its electricity from coal.

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EVs have finally come of age. The total cost of purchasing and driving one—the cost of ownership—has fallen nearly to parity with a typical gasoline-fueled car. Scientists and engineers have extended the range of EVs by cramming ever more energy into their batteries, and vehicle-charging networks have expanded in many countries. In the United States, for example, there are more than 49,000 public charging stations, and it is now possible to drive an EV from New York to California using public charging networks.

With all this, consumers and policymakers alike are hopeful that society will soon greatly reduce its carbon emissions by replacing today’s cars with electric vehicles. Indeed, adopting electric vehicles will go a long way in helping to improve environmental outcomes. But EVs come with important weaknesses, and so people shouldn’t count on them alone to do the job, even for the transportation sector.

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