Electric Vehicle Stocks Tumble — Dept. Of Defense To The Rescue!

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With a massive fleet of vehicles second only to the Postal Service, the US Department of Defense could leverage its buying power to help kick the US electric vehicle market into high gear. That mission would be made easier by EV-friendly provisions in the Build Back Batter climate action bill. Too bad 51 US Senators are determined to block the bill from becoming law. Nevertheless, the DOD is poised to make its mark on the sparkling green economy of the future, bill or no bill.

Warning Signs For US Electric Vehicle Makers

Over the weekend our friends at CNN ran the numbers on US electric vehicle makers after Rivian, Lucid, and other startups suffered a sharp downturn in the stock market.

As observed by CNN Business Reporter reporter Chris Isidore, the startup troubles began to build earlier this month, when legacy automakers like Volkswagen, Toyota, Ford, and GM announced plans to accelerate their pivot into the electric vehicle market.

In particular, Ford’s track record with the F-150 Lightning pickup, Mustang Mach-E SUV, and all-electric Transit van demonstrate how legacy automakers can snatch the low-hanging fruit of brand identification away from startups.

West Virginia US Senator Joe Manchin then twisted the knife on Sunday, December 19, when he appeared on television to announce that he would align with the 50-strong Republican caucus in opposition to the Build Back Better climate action bill, which would have provided significant benefits to electric vehicle manufacturers.

Isadore cited a Wedbush Securities analyst who called the loss of Senator Manchin’s vote on Build Back Better a “gut punch” for US electric vehicle startups.

US Department of Defense Picks Up The Electric Vehicle Torch

Senator Manchin’s announcement may have been a reaction to the executive order President Joe Biden issued on December 8, in which he prohibited federal agencies from investing in non-abated fossil energy projects overseas. The abatement loophole leaves copious wiggle room for coal and other fossil energy projects, but the order could still impact Manchin’s financial interest in the US coal industry, and that makes it personal.

The President also ordered all federal agencies to curtail their greenhouse gas emissions by leveraging their procurement pipelines, and that could impact Manchin’s reportedly close relationship with ExxonMobil, among other corporate donors.

Personal or not, the procurement order throws a nice, meaty bone to legacy automakers which already have a track record on Defense Department, and startups could also benefit.

Among other provisions, the order calls for “100 percent zero-emission vehicle acquisitions by 2035, including 100 percent zero-emission light-duty vehicle acquisitions by 2027.”

The order does allow for the Defense Department to continue using liquid fuels in the foreseeable future, due to its national security mission. However, a recent report indicates that the agency already has a significant headstart on rapid decarbonization for its light duty vehicles, including preparation for charging station build-out at military facilities.

The US military has been dabbling in both battery and fuel cell electric vehicles for years, without making too much headway, but signs of a significant pickup in the pace have emerged in recent months. For example, last February the Army Applications Laboratory proposed the new public-private Power Transfer Cohort to accelerate charging station access for the Army “anywhere in the world.”

Advantage For Legacy Automakers

At a conference in November, Defense Deputy Secretary Kathleen H. Hicks also underscored the focus public private partnerships to accelerate electric vehicle adoption. Though she did emphasize that the military’s non-tactical ground fleet is the chief target for electrification over the near term, she also noted the importance of eventually decarbonizing tactical vehicles as well.

Among the automakers already entwined with the Defense Department electric vehicle procurement pipeline are GM, which has been working with the Army on fuel cell EVs for the past several years. The company’s GM Defense subsidiary has also begun teasing an all-electric version of its Infantry Squad Vehicle.

Another example is the company Oshkosh Defense (formerly Oshkosh Truck). Oshkosh Defense came under the media microscope last spring when it won a US Postal Service contract to produce a whole fleet of new, mostly non-electric mail delivery trucks, but Oshkosh Defense actually does make electric trucks. The company plans to ramp up its activity in the area of all-electric emergency response vehicles, which could ripple into its array of contracts for DOD vehicles.

Winning Hearts & Minds For The Electric Vehicle Revolution Of The Future

Writing for the legal and national defense blog LawFare, military analyst Erin Sikorsky took a closer look at the December 8 Executive Order earlier this week and she came up with an interesting take on the role of the military in cultivating the next generation of climate warriors.

She noted that the Defense Department has a fleet of about 180,000 non-tactical vehicles. With many vehicles used by multiple drivers, that would translate into a whole new army of EV-trained soldiers who could potentially act as electric vehicle ambassadors to the civilian world.

Sikorsky also noted that the Executive Order contains language about workforce development, education, and adaptability in support of the Climate Adaptation Plan released earlier this year by the Defense Department, specifically the part where the DOD states that it is “committed to integrating climate change literacy into all its training and education efforts, from skill-specific military education to graduate training in the war colleges.”

Don’t Look Up & The Climate Conversation

Of course, no amount of education can filter out all of the cockeyed thinking that passes through the military screening process, one disturbing example being white supremacist extremism. Nevertheless, deploying tens of thousands of climate-literate Warfighters to contribute to the national conversation on climate change could be a game-changer.

The ability to make large swaths of the general public listen to a clear, compelling message on climate action should not be a challenge, but it is. As entertainingly illustrated by the new Netflix film Don’t Look Up, a baseline level of conversation for addressing fundamental matters of human survival has slipped out of reach, at least at the present time.

In trawling for the source of this sorry state of affairs, Don’t Look Up casts a wide net. The film portrays opportunistic politicians, greedy capitalists, a jaded media, and a distracted citizenry that can’t or won’t face the facts. They all have their fingers in the overloaded pie of public discourse, into which the simple message of science — “the data says we’re all gonna die from this comet that’s coming” — evaporates as soon as it drops into the conversation, leaving nothing but a festering kaleidoscope of word salad to carry the day.

Don’t expect Don’t Look Up to change hearts and minds all on its own. The film’s A-list cast — including Jennifer Lawrence, Leonardo DiCaprio, Tyler Perry, and Timothée Chalamet — could help the climate action message reach a few new ears. However, following through with concrete action is a much tougher row to hoe. If a whole new segment of the voting public suddenly decides to stop handing elections to fossil energy stakeholders and their allies on account of Don’t Look Up, then we’re getting somewhere.

In the meantime, the Defense Department has been prepping to shoulder the climate messaging mission, and it might just succeed where others have failed.

After all, if “Support Our Troops” means anything at all, then the US military’s call for climate action should prompt every American who calls themselves a patriot to pitch in, except maybe for the ones who tried to do an insurrection last year.

Follow me on Twitter @TinaMCasey.

Photo: ZH2 tactical fuel cell electric vehicle courtesy of US Army.

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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

Tina Casey has 3234 posts and counting. See all posts by Tina Casey