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Obama's meddling puts the brakes on the green car industry

In spite of a decade of failed government vehicle-efficiency policies, Obama has poured millions into the 'advanced vehicle' and fuel industries and wants to increase involvement. Unfortunately, the harm done by these handouts will extend far beyond simply wasting taxpayers’ money.

By Patrick Fleenor / May 14, 2012

President Obama walks past a Nissan Leaf electric car and Toyota Prius Hybrid on July 29, 2011 in Washington, where he delivered remarks on a program to improve the fuel efficiency of vehicles to be built between 2017-2025. Op-ed contributor Patrick Fleenor says: 'The key to developing the vehicles of tomorrow is to end government intervention in the automotive sector and allow firms to experiment with a wide range of technologies on an open, level playing field.'

Jason Reed/Reuters

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Alexandria, Va.

Fearing an electoral backlash over rising gasoline prices, President Obama has been touting his energy policies. “We can’t have an energy strategy for the last century that traps us in the past,” the president said in a recent appearance. “We need an energy strategy for the future.”

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Promising to save Americans money by having the federal government play a more active role in developing future energy-efficient vehicles, the president said of critics, “There always have been folks who are the naysayers and don’t believe in the future, and don’t believe in trying to do things differently.”

What’s strange about this futuristic talk is that Mr. Obama’s plan to boost vehicle efficiency relies heavily on decades-old policies that have repeatedly failed. Indeed, the fuel efficiency of the US automotive fleet, which grew rapidly throughout the 1970s and 1980s, slowed significantly after the federal government became an active “partner” in vehicle design.

Before 1993, the federal government took mostly a backseat role in automobile design. Then President Clinton created the Partnership for the Next Generation Vehicle, a joint venture between the federal government and major American car companies.

“Today we are going to...launch a technological adventure as ambitious as any our nation has ever attempted,” Mr. Clinton said in a Rose Garden ceremony. Vice President Gore added, “The public should expect breakthroughs that will redefine the automobile industry and position our companies to have an excellent chance to dominate the market for an entirely new kind of automobile.”

Throughout the 1990s the Clinton administration kept up the hype, promising that by 2004 Detroit would be supplying consumers with 80-mile-per-gallon, family-sized vehicles. Yet by the dawn of the new century it became clear that this was a pipe dream.

Even more embarrassing was the fact that Toyota and Honda, foreign firms that had been excluded from the partnership, began introducing hybrid cars to the American market with fuel efficiency levels that approached the targets set for Clinton's partnership program.

Failure in government, however, is often the ticket to an even larger policy role. In 2002, the Bush administration rebranded the partnership the FreedomCAR, pumped up its budget, and expanded its mission. The next year the program grew to include energy firms, and its budget ballooned even more.

In the 2003 State of the Union address President Bush proclaimed, “With a national commitment, our scientists and engineers will overcome obstacles to taking these cars from laboratory to showroom so that the first car driven by a child born today could be powered by hydrogen and be pollution-free.”

Again, however, actual program results bore little semblance to presidential rhetoric. Nevertheless, the program lives on today, again under a new name – US DRIVE.

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