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
Photo: Getty Images

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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2021 Top 10 Tech Cars

The trend toward all-electric is accelerating 

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Photo: Rimac Automobili

The COVID-19 pandemic put the auto industry on its own lockdown in 2020. But the technological upheavals haven't slowed a bit.

The march toward electric propulsion, for example, continued unabated. Nine of our 10 Top Tech Cars this year are electrically powered, either in EV or gas-electric hybrid form. A few critical model introductions were delayed by the virus, including the debut of one of our boldface honorees: the long-awaited 2021 Lucid Air electric sedan. It's expected to hit the market in a few months. But the constellation of 2021's electric stars covers many categories and budgets, from the ultra-affordable, yet tech-stuffed Hyundai Elantra Hybrid to the US $2.4 million Rimac C Two hypercar.

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