The Electric Vehicle: A Microcosm for America’s Problem with Innovation

Zach Sibley, MJLST Staffer


Last year, former U.S. Patent and Trademark Office Director, David Kappos, criticized a series of changes in patent legislation and case law for weakening innovation protections and driving technology investments towards China. Since then it has become apparent that America’s problem with innovation runs deeper than just the strength of U.S. patent rights. State and federal policies toward new industries also appear to be trending against domestic innovation. One illustrative example is the electric vehicle (EV).


EVs offer better technological upsides than their internal combustion engine vehicle (ICEV) counterparts. Most notably, as our US grid system moves toward “smart” infrastructure that leverages the Internet of Things, EVs can interact with the grid and assist in maximizing the efficiency of its infrastructure in ways not possible with ICEVs. Additionally, with clean air and emission targets imminent—like those in the Clean Air Act or in more stringent state legislation—EVs offer the most immediate impact in reducing mobile source air pollutants, especially in a sector that recently became the highest carbon dioxide emitter. And finally, EVs present electrical utilities that are facing a “death spiral” an opportunity to recover profits by increasing electricity demand.   


Recent state and federal policy changes, however, may hinder efforts of EV innovators. Eighteen state legislators have enacted EV fees—including Wisconsin’s recent adoption, and the overturned fee in Oklahoma—ranging from $50 to $300 in some states. Proponents claim the fee creates parity between traditional ICEV drivers and the new EV drivers not paying fuel taxes that fund maintenance of transportation infrastructure. Recent findings, though, suggest EV drivers in some states with the fee were previously paying more upfront in taxes than their ICEV road-mates. The fee also only creates parity when solely focused on the wear and tear all vehicles cause on shared road infrastructure. The calculus for these fees often neglects that EV and ICEV drivers also share the same air resources and yet no tax accompanies EV fees that would also charge ICEVs for their share of wear and tear on air quality.


At the federal level, changes in administrative policy are poised to exacerbate the problem further. The freshly proposed GOP tax bill includes a provision to repeal a $7,500 rebate that has made lower cost EVs a more affordable option for middle class drivers. This change should be contrasted with foreign efforts, such as those in the European Union to increase CO2 reduction targets and offer credits for EV purchases. The contrast can be summed up with one commentator’s observation regarding The New York Times who reported, within the span of a few days, about the U.S. EPA’s rollback of the Clean Power Plan and then about General Motors moving toward a full electric line in response to the Chinese government. The latter story harkens back to Kappos’ comments at the beginning of this post, where again a changing U.S. legal and regulatory landscaping is driving innovation elsewhere.


It is a basic tenant of economics that incentives matter. Even in a state with a robust EV presence like California, critics question the wisdom of assessing fees and repealing incentives this early in a nascent industry offering a promising technological future. The U.S. used to be great because it was the world’s gold standard for innovation: the first light bulb, the first car, the first airplane, the first to the moon, and the first personal computers (to name a few). Our laws need to continue to reflect our innovative identity. Hopefully, with legislation like the STRONG Patents Act of 2017 and a series of state EV incentives on the horizon, we can return to our great innovative roots.