"Billions of your tax dollars were spent to put a million electric cars on the road by the end of this year. You might be outraged when you hear what happened."
Sounds shocking, doesn't it?
Also perhaps vaguely reminiscent of 2011 and 2012, when uninformed, context-free, and factually-wrong "news" stories emerged about the Chevrolet Volt and, by extension, any electric car?
Well, as they say, "It's baaaaaack!"
The December 6th episode of Full Measure, which calls itself "a broadcast focusing on investigative, original and accountability reporting," covered the topic of electric cars in a segment titled "Running on E."
The show says it's "dedicated to pursuing Untouchable Subjects through Fearless Reporting"; it's produced by and airs on the Sinclair Broadcast Network. (We might suggest it could use a proofreader or two for stray capitalization.)
Tesla Supercharger site with photovoltaic solar panels, Rocklin, California, Feb 2015
Electric-car advocates are likely to question the episode's allusions to "government waste" and "outrage" over a policy goal, which is supported by financial incentives from both Federal and state governments, that hasn't been achieved on schedule.
The 7-minute segment starts at 10:21 in the 23-minute episode. "Now we turn to green energy and taxpayer waste," intones the announcer in the lead-in.
It opens on President Obama's green-energy goals, supported by $36 billion in the Recovery Act. Among the goals was putting 1 million plug-in vehicles on U.S. roads by the end of 2015.
The number of battery-electric and plug-in hybrid cars on U.S. roads will be slightly over 400,000 at the end of this month, according to data aggregated by HybridCars.com.
The segment first turns to Tesla Motors, which it calls "a success story" for paying back its 2010 low-interest loan from the Department of Energy several years ahead of schedule.
Of almost $9 billion in low-interest DoE loans to car and parts makers, the department ultimately lost $139 million on a $529 million loan to Fisker Automotive.
Fisker's new Wilmington Plant (aerial view)
Tesla repaid its $465 million loan ahead of schedule, and Ford and Nissan are current in their payments on loans of $5.9 billion and $1.6 billion respectively.
Oddly, the program lumps the DoE low-interest loans together with Federal income-tax credits for buyers of plug-in cars, and gives the total Federal support for electric cars as $7.5 billion.
Then a reporter takes a Volkswagen e-Golf for a test drive in Boston, noting that the $7,500 Federal incentive is joined by a Massachusetts incentive of $2,500 more.
The selection of the e-Golf isn't explained; a Nissan Leaf, the electric car with the highest total U.S. sales, might have been a more logical choice.
Then the program shifts to Greg Sullivan, now with the Pioneer Institute think tank, who "helped root out taxpayer waste" as the inspector general of Massachusetts.
Note the implicit connection between financial incentives to encourage a policy and "government waste"?
Frame from 'Running on E,' Full Measure segment on electric cars, Dec 2015
Sullivan has "researched the government's electric-car efforts," and gets more screen time than any other source.
"If you have a car that only gets 80 miles on a charge, and takes many hours to charge that car, and ends up costing more than a regular car," he says, "those are all deal-killers for regular people."
Then there's 2 minutes on Fisker Automotive, complete with footage of Vice President Joe Biden, which the program accurately calls "technology not ready for prime time"--complete with Consumer Reports footage of its dead Fisker Karma test car.
It briefly segues into the saga of A123 Systems, Fisker's battery supplier, which was also supported by (different) government funds. Its Michigan factory fabricated the cells that caused Fisker batteries to fail.
Both companies declared bankruptcy and were purchased by Wanxiang, China's largest auto supplier, which is now attempting to restart production of the car under the new brand name Karma.
Frame from 'Running on E,' Full Measure segment on electric cars, Dec 2015
A strange and unchallenged statement by an official of Newcastle County, Delaware--site of an unused Fisker plant purchased with Federal dollars--asserts that, "You're not gonna sell electric cars even on the West Coast right now."
That's factually incorrect. While plug-in cars are presently less than 1 percent of national sales in the U.S., they represent about three times that number in California.
A screenshot showing 11 plug-in vehicles puts big red Xes through six of them, indicating they're now defunct: Ford Transit Connect Electric, Fisker Karma, Fisker Nina, an unidentified product from large truck maker Navistar, the Smith Newton delivery truck, and the Think City.
All those "have already stopped production or gone belly-up, making it nearly impossible to meet the goal," says the voiceover.
The program makes no mention of the relative volumes of these vehicles--the Nissan Leaf, as noted, is the best-selling electric vehicle in both the U.S. and the world--nor that three of the six were low-volume commercial vehicles that families wouldn't have bought in the first place.
Back to Sullivan for the wrapup: He says the government has "met about one-third of" the million-car goal by the end of 2015. (It's 400,000, but close enough.)
There's an upbeat ending: "Tesla and Panasonic are joining to develop a better electric-car battery, and the concept of green vehicles remains hot, even if sales aren't."
Only at the end does Sullivan call the million-car number "a great goal," acknowledging that driving electric cars reduces greenhouse-gas emissions.
"Problem is," he says, over footage of a Tesla Model S, "the government got ahead of itself, by giving multi-billion dollar incentives to people to buy cars, but the cars they were kind of coercing them into buying really weren't practical."
The juxtaposition of the statement and the Tesla Model S seems ironic, given that car's range of 200-plus miles on a charge--a fact not mentioned in the segment--and Tesla's network of Supercharger fast-charging sites, which make coast-to-coast trips practical in its cars.
President Obama inspects the 2011 Chevrolet Volt
The Obama Administration declined the program's interview request; the segment closes with a pro forma statement from the Energy Department saying the U.S. will eventually become the first country in the world to have 1 million electric vehicles on its roads.
The segment overall gets most of its facts right, but its premise--that viewers will be "shocked" by government actions that "waste" taxpayer dollars--is never proven.
No context is provided around the DoE loan program, which has losses of a couple of percentage points, roughly comparable to those of commercial lenders.
It's unclear which parts of the segment are "Untouchable Subjects" or exactly what kind of "Fearless Reporting" was involved in preparing it.
And the program seems to proceed from the premise that incentivizing citizens to take actions for the public good equates to government waste, but it fails to show even that.
2015 Nissan Leaf
In the end, "Running on E" is like much of so-called "television news"--a handful of facts, wrapped in attention-grabbing headlines, that omit greater context and any pretense of serious policy discussion.
We note it was not television reporters who uncovered the Volkswagen diesel emission scandal, which actually is shocking.
Meanwhile, an alternative formulation for a different edit of this segment could have been, "U.S. goal of 1 million electric cars delayed; better models coming soon."
But that likely wouldn't have attracted viewers interested in shocking revelations or anger-inducing proof of government fraud, waste, misbehavior, and malfeasance.
Which they didn't get anyway.
[hat tip: Brian Henderson]