I know that CleanTechnica and every other outlet covered the Biden administration’s snub of Tesla on Thursday, but much of the commentary I’ve seen was from people who were disappointed in the Biden administration’s actions. Some feared it was bad for Tesla to not get the attention, or would make people think Tesla wasn’t good enough.
I think the real takeaway was that Biden needs Elon Musk more than Elon Musk needs Biden. Before I start explaining this, let’s do a quick review and give readers some links in case this is the first they’ve heard of it. Feel free to skip the next section if you’re up to speed on this already.
The Snub That Backfired
On Thursday, the White House held a special event on electric vehicles. Ford, GM, and Stellantis were all there, but Tesla, the biggest manufacturer of electric vehicles in the United States, wasn’t invited. You can get a lot more detail on this from Johnna Crider’s initial article.
In response to her article, Elon Musk said he was as surprised by this as we were.
Yeah, seems odd that Tesla wasn’t invited
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) August 5, 2021
Given how odd it is to throw an EV manufacturing event and not invite Tesla, the media outlets weren’t afraid to ask the big question that was on everybody’s minds, and Pete Buttigieg wasn’t sure what to say.
— Squawk Box (@SquawkCNBC) August 5, 2021
What we see here is definitely a guy trying to put a spin on things, which looks like dishonesty to most people (largely because it is dishonest). He first tried to change the subject, but the CNBC host didn’t let Pete play games. They brought up Elon Musk’s above tweet and then forced him to answer the damned question. When he did get around to doing that, he said they didn’t want the event to look like it was about luxury cars (a common Republican argument against Tesla).
Nobody familiar with the situation accepted that answer, as the EVs from other manufacturers aren’t much cheaper. On top of that, they often sell plugin hybrids, hybrids, and even regular gas vehicles for more than Tesla’s Model 3.
Eventually, the White House did respond to this, making it clear that it was basically about unions building EVs, and not EV production and sales in general — even though the headline commitment is about sales across the industry in the US in 2030.
Let’s Rewind A Bit To Get Some Perspective
To fully explain why I think Elon Musk doesn’t need Biden, I have to go back to when George W. Bush was in the White House. The Energy Improvement and Extension Act of 2008 is where the whole federal EV subsidy thing started. It offered up to $7500 in tax credits for plug-in vehicles, but only for the first 200,000 from each manufacturer.
To people who don’t follow politics much or who have only been following it for a few years, it may seem odd that a Republican would sign such a bill into law. More recently, Republicans have been for the repeal of the credit, saying that they’re being used by rich people to buy luxury cars, and that climate change concerns are either false or overrated.
In the 2000s, alternative fuel vehicles (including EVs) were supported by Republicans because dependence on foreign fossil fuels (especially oil) was a matter of national security. In the post-9/11 environment, cars built in the United States that ran on American-generated electricity would have been seen as great for the country, and even patriotic. Even “doomsday preppers” (another thing that picked up after 9/11) were looking into electric vehicles, as one could charge them at home with solar power during a long emergency.
Since then, domestic oil production has expanded greatly, and concerns over energy security have mostly evaporated. With the threat of buying oil from brown people who hate the U.S. because it keeps bombing them effectively gone, Republicans have gone back to their default position of supporting fossil fuel companies.
More importantly, though, we have to keep in mind that it’s been almost 13 years since that policy of subsidizing EVs began. It took ten years for the first manufacturer (Tesla) to hit the cap, with GM hitting the cap later that year. Nobody else has hit the cap, but Toyota, Nissan, and Ford are likely to be the next ones to do so years from now. As of 2020, Tesla had sold three times the plugin cars as GM, and over 4 times what other manufacturers have sold, and since then the gap has only widened.
Tesla Has Effectively Carried The Whole EV Industry So Far
The federal government and state governments have been pushing alternative fuel vehicles for a long time, with the most serious efforts starting at the end of the Bush administration and then continuing under Barack Obama. Automakers like Tesla even got government loans and grants to get started. In his 2011 State of the Union address, President Obama even set out a goal to achieve 1 million EVs on the road in the U.S. by 2015, and worked to provide even more grants, loans, and other assistance to automakers developing EVs.
Despite all of this help, it took several more years (beyond 2015) to get to 1 million EVs, and when this was finally achieved, the majority of the vehicles came from Tesla. Despite having great advantages over Tesla, and access to most of the same government assistance, the existing automakers just didn’t make building and selling EVs a priority.
With almost 1.9 million EVs sold so far, and over a million Teslas sold, we’d barely be approaching a million without Tesla, in theory. In reality, though, the other automakers probably wouldn’t have even bothered to make as few EVs as they have made were it not for Tesla pushing them. With no competitive pressure from cars like the Model S and X, and then the Model 3 and Y, the automakers weren’t pressuring each other to offer anything electrified at all, let alone BEVs.
There’s no way to know what they would have done without Tesla’s rise threatening them and making them look bad, but I’d guess that the total EV sales would probably be far below 500,000.
Today’s Press Response Proves As Much
Normally, reporters tend to softball the people they like, but today they actually made Pete Buttigieg and Jen Psaki answer their questions instead of letting them change the subject or promise to “circle back.” That Tesla wasn’t invited to an event promoting EV manufacturing was simply too absurd to ignore.
The fact is, there wouldn’t be an EV industry to even push if it wasn’t for Tesla. The major automakers, whenever they faced an EV mandate or credit scheme that they couldn’t kill in the courts, would still be making low-volume compliance cars like the Fiat 500e, Ford Focus Electric, or Chevy Spark EV. Lacking the range or “cool factor” that Tesla brought to the table, the larger market would have never taken these cars seriously. When the compliance cars met no demand, they’d use that as “proof” that EVs would never sell.
Biden knows that he needs to give these other automakers a big push to even get them to make half of their vehicles electric by 2030, but snubbing Tesla and focusing on unionized automakers shows that his priorities are elsewhere. He also might resent Tesla for doing what him and his colleagues were unable to do with all of the levers of government power at their disposal.
When even the President of the United States can’t get people to focus on what he wants them to focus on, it shows that when it comes to EVs, Tesla has even more power and influence than the U.S. government.
So, yeah, Biden needs Elon Musk more than Elon Musk needs Biden.
Featured image by Tesla.
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