Obama victory may boost EV agenda, spur rules on emissions, safety
The U.S. auto industry figured heavily in Obama's successful reelection, which included as a centerpiece the bailouts of GM and Chrysler.
President Barack Obama's second term likely will include a return to an agenda of support for electric vehicles and also could clear the way for new rules on tailpipe emissions and auto safety.
The auto industry figured heavily in Obama's reelection effort, which included as a centerpiece the $85 billion auto bailout and the resurgence of General Motors and Chrysler.
Support in Ohio for the bailout helped Obama to a victory in that state as well as Michigan, which have about 65 percent of GM and Chrysler Group's U.S. factories.
His opponent, Mitt Romney, caused a stir as the campaign wound down with an ad that suggested Chrysler's Jeep was moving jobs from Ohio to China, which the automaker denied. The uproar led Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne to put out a statement saying the company will hire 1,100 workers next year to start a second shift at an assembly plant in Toledo.
"You'll hear the pride in the voice of a volunteer who's going door to door because her brother was finally hired when the local auto plant added another shift," Obama said in his post-election speech, referring to the voices he heard on the campaign trail that transcended what he called the cynicism of politics.
Obama has provided few details on his plans for the auto industry during a second term, such as his plans for the 500 million shares of GM stock still owned by the federal government. But the backlogs of funding and rules at federal agencies show the agenda that Obama's appointees likely will advance in the next four years.
On electric cars and other cleaner technologies promoted by the EPA and the Department of Energy, "I expect us to pick up again in a second term and put everything back on track," said Roland Hwang, director of the transportation program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group.
Car companies may not agree with all of Obama's policies, but they can accept the predictability of the White House-brokered corporate average fuel economy deal with automakers and the state of California.
The rules, which set annual targets that ramp up to the equivalent of 54.5 mpg by the 2025 model year, should now go into effect without major changes through the end of Obama's second term in 2016.
Some dealers have grumbled about the effect on new-vehicle sticker prices. But automakers generally say they're glad to get clarity about the numbers that'll need to show up on fuel-economy labels over the next decade.
Now the administration faces a new test: making sure car buyers remain confident in those labels after last week's revelation that Hyundai and Kia overstated the fuel economy of some of their best-selling vehicles from model years 2011-13.
Gloria Bergquist, a spokeswoman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, said the course of action won't be clear until the EPA figures out exactly what happened.
Consumer groups may call for stricter measures to make sure car buyers are getting the advertised fuel economy. But regulators spotted the inaccuracies in this case, so there's no sign of a broken system that justifies big changes, Bergquist said.
"We haven't seen this problem in the past," she said. "Because the requirements are so clear, I can't understand whether it was a simple error or what it was. I'll count on the agency to inform us."
The electric charge
President Obama set a goal of having 1 million electric vehicles on the road by 2015, and supporters expect him to stick with it.
His administration tapped on the brakes during the campaign season in the face of Republican criticism, but the makers of electric vehicles and their suppliers are still in line to receive cash and research aid despite being heaped with scorn by Republican challenger Mitt Romney during the campaign.
Obama proposed in February to increase a $7,500 tax credit for electric cars to as much as $10,000, a clear sign he'll resist efforts to cut that subsidy during the tax talks that will grip Washington over the next few months.
And with the election in the rearview mirror, his administration also could decide to resume lending under the Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing loan program, a $25 billion fund for the production of cleaner cars and trucks as well as high-tech components that go into them.
The Department of Energy never formally closed the ATVM program, but the fund went mostly dormant last year after other DOE-backed companies went bankrupt and the administration became gun-shy about new loans.
Some companies withdrew applications, such as the startup Coda Automotive Inc., which chose to expand its manufacturing in China rather than in Ohio. Others didn't make it, such as the EV startup Bright Automotive, which went out of business in March after failing to secure a $314 million DOE loan.
The ATVM fund still has about $16 billion left. Budget cutting on Capitol Hill may make it difficult to give out the money, but congressional Democrats and their allies want Obama's appointees to keep at it.
"Obama clearly still has a goal of 1 million plug-in EVs on the road by 2015," Hwang of the Natural Resources Defense Council said. With Obama in office for the next four years, "there will probably be somewhat of a re-evaluation of the program, but the ATVM is much more likely to move forward."
Outside of the CAFE standards, new rules from Washington slowed to a trickle this year, a sign of a White House trying to avoid fights in an election year. Plenty of stalled rules could now return to the agenda at agencies such as the EPA and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration:
-- Car companies have lobbied for the federal government to adopt California rules requiring cleaner fuel, partly because the amount of sulfur in current blends can foul up catalytic converters and partly because they don't want to deal with a patchwork of standards. California's third round of Low Emission Vehicle rules, known as LEV 3, is seen as a model for a new nationwide "Tier 3" standard from the EPA, but the idea has drawn resistance from oil refiners, which have a formidable lobby on Capitol Hill and rarely agree with the Obama administration.
After backing away from the issue this year, Obama's appointees must now decide whether cleaner-burning fuel is important enough for automakers and public health to justify costs on refiners that might add a few cents to the price of a gallon of gasoline.
-- Ordered by a 2008 law to reduce the number of children who die from being backed over by cars, NHTSA proposed a rule that would require new cars to have backup cameras by 2014. Earlier this year, the White House put a hold on the rule to address complaints from automakers. Backup cameras would add $58 to $203 to the cost of a new car or truck, depending on whether the vehicle already has a video display, NHTSA says.
Officials from the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers told White House officials during a meeting last December that the change would cost too much, at $11 million for each of the 200 to 240 lives saved. Obama's appointees will need to decide how to weigh the added costs against safety, and their decision will have a major effect on the fast-growing market for navigation and video displays.
-- Obama's appointees to the National Labor Relations Board likely will continue to press for rules that further the interests of unions. Obama himself has backed a "card check" bill in Congress that would abolish the secret ballot that makes it harder for unions to organize workers. The effort has stalled so far, but Richard Trumka, the president of the labor union AFL-CIO, recently told The Atlantic that he expects Obama's favored provisions to become law during a second Obama term despite hurdles in Congress.
You can reach Gabe Nelson at firstname.lastname@example.org.