The chief executives of the world’s biggest automakers gathered with President Barack Obama at the Washington Convention Center in 2011 to announce they had agreed to double the average fuel economy of their vehicles to 54.5 miles per gallon -- the largest increase in history.
Five years later, after Donald Trump was elected, the companies asked the president-elect to roll back the standards. He did.
That history was fresh in the mind of climate activists and others as President Joe Biden on Thursday signed an executive order on the White House lawn, also flanked by Detroit auto executives, that set an ambitious though voluntary national goal of having half of all vehicles sold in the U.S. be emissions-free by the end of the decade.
“Trusting auto companies to comply with a voluntary pledge is like believing your New Years weight loss resolution is a binding contract,” said Dan Becker, director of the Center for Biological Diversity’s Safe Climate Transport Campaign. “They violated their commitment by going to Trump.”
But this time the automakers point to investments and pronouncements they made about moving toward carbon neutrality even before Biden signed his executive order on Thursday as evidence of their sincerity.
“Collectively, the auto industry has committed to investing more than $330 billion to bring exciting new electric vehicles to market, including plug-in hybrid, battery and fuel cell EVs,” John Bozzella, president and CEO of the Alliance for Automotive Innovation, which lobbies for major automakers, said in a statement.
General Motors, for instance, said in June it will spend $35 billion on more than 30 plug-in vehicles and a total of four battery plants by 2025. And Ford Motor Co. announced a month earlier that it would boost its bet on plug-in models by more than a third, to $30 billion, with the goal of electrifying 40 percent of sales by 2030.
Stellantis, formed by the merger of Fiat Chrysler and PSA Group, last month said it has budgeted more than 30 billion euros ($35 billion) for electrification and software. It will have five battery factories in Europe and North America by the end of the decade.
Biden’s announcement, coupled with new emissions regulations also unveiled on Thursday, will be key to achieving his ambitious climate goals slashing U.S. emissions by 50 percent by 2030 and achieving a carbon-free economy by 2050. Neither target can be met without changes to the transportation sector, the largest source of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.
“The future of the American auto industry is electric,” Biden said Thursday with an array of electric and hybrid vehicles on the White House’s South Lawn as a backdrop. “It is electric; there’s no turning back.”