Last week we read an ardent argument in favor of government backing of electric vehicle (EV) technology. On the surface, the call for government support of the technology itself and the infrastructure that supports it seems like a winner. But is it?
To answer that question we should weigh a simple principle: think twice (and thrice) about what you incentivize. Every incentive also discourages its alternatives.
For example, government initiatives to build a recharging station network may discourage the development of longer range vehicles? Why do I need a 300-500 mile range if I can recharge every 2 miles? And who and per what criteria decides where stations should serve EV owners? Somehow gas stations found their spots without government divination.
That brings us to a related point. Even while lining up at Costco, I can refill my clunker in a matter of minutes. The laws of physics stubbornly asserting themselves as they tend to do, it takes considerably longer to recharge even the nimblest EV. Is that always practical? How will government's intervention produce flash-charging or solve its associated technical problems? Hurl more money at it, proponents would surely answer.
Yet, this brings us to another false assumption. Who decreed EV is the winning renewable automotive technology? Apparently, some would say government. But that would beg the question. Assuming the final answer before we give all options fair consideration robs us of the full innovative benefits government interventionists allegedly advocate.
Case in point? For all of its own challenges, hydrogen fuel cell technology holds a lot of promise. Enough that Toyota (ignoring Elon Musk's ridicule) is throwing its considerable weight behind it. And who knows whether another renewable automotive technology is waiting in the wings? Putting EV in the winner's circle would likely discourage the rise of those innovations and waste scarce resources along the way. Read up on the Ethanol debacle for further evidence.
Government has already given hybrids and EVs a healthy leg up, with some curious results. You will experience one of these curiosities if you ride the HOV lane on the 105 freeway. Thanks to Sacramento wisdom, many hybrid and EV owners get to ride it as single drivers. The result? A bump in sales for those special vehicles, and on most days, no better ride times for true carpool vehicles than for anyone else. Is the environment any better off for it? Not when you consider the increased emissions of idling carpool vehicles.
Government has played a salient role in the development of technology. Examples in defense and space programs abound. But when government uses too heavy a hand to presuppose final solutions the results are often less than optimal. Then again, what would life be without its curiosities?