Who will control electric vehicle technologies?

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No doubt, the near-term future of electrified vehicles in this country is dicey.

But my guess is that -- however bumpy the next few years are -- within a decade or two, electric-drive vehicles will have a noticeable share of the U.S. fleet. They might be electric vehicles, plug-in hybrids, or various hybrid drive permutations.

That would be a good thing for reducing our dependency on Middle East oil. But we might wind up dependent on a technology for which China is the global leader.

As writer Alysha Webb reports in a story today, electric-drive expertise has been steadily flowing from the United States to China over the past year.

That trend caught the attention of one member of Congress last week. U.S. Rep. Cliff Stearns, R-Fla., went into attack mode after hearing that Wanxiang Group, a large Chinese supplier and automaker, was preparing to buy a controlling interest in battery-maker A123 Systems Inc. A123 had received a $249.1 million federal grant to build U.S. manufacturing plants.

Stearns accused the Obama Administration of failing “to secure sensitive taxpayer funded intellectual property from being transferred to a foreign adversary, which raises serious national security issues,” according to Bloomberg.

I’m not entirely sure that national security issues are involved here; this was a grant for factory construction, not R&D. But Stearns is still touching on an important issue. Beleaguered electric-drive companies are discovering that China offers willing investors and supportive government policy.

U.S. firms are setting up manufacturing in China, too. For example, another battery-maker, Boston-Power Inc., received a $125 million investment from China last year. Since then, Boston-Power has moved most operations from Westborough, Mass., to China. It’s building a plant there.

The contrast between China’s posture and that in the United States is striking. Currently, it seems like any federal support for electric-drive technologies here is under attack. Most new-tech ventures face a slow, risky climb to profitability, so programs backing them are an easy target.

Critics do have a point: A lot of new technologies fizzle out. But there’s also a risk to failing to explore new tech.

If we want to take the laissez-faire approach -- to leave the fates of new automotive technologies solely to market forces -- we let the chips fall where they may. Right now, they’re falling into China’s outstretched hands.

You can reach Dave Guilford at dguilford@crain.com. -- Follow Dave on

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