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Carmakers want Congress to see their electric cars at Washington Auto Show

Keith Laing
The Detroit News

Washington — Carmakers who are gathered in the nation's capital for the Washington Auto Show are showing off their newest electric vehicles with an audience of 535 members of Congress in mind.

The D.C. car confab, known primarily as a public policy show, attracts an array of alternative fuel vehicles that would seem more likely to catch the eye of policymakers debating gas-mileage rules than SUV-crazy consumers. 

Ford's Mustang Mach-E is on display at the Washington Auto Show. Electric vehicles are at the forefront, as automakers target members of Congress.

Ford Motor Co. used the audience of lawmakers and regulators to show off its new fully electric 2021 Mustang Mach-E, which is the Dearborn manufacturer's first-ever battery-powered SUV. 

"It's important for all the consumers to be able to see this important vehicle in person," Rhonda Belluso, a Ford East Region spokeswoman, said. "Post reveal, this is the first time residents of D.C., Maryland and Virginia will be able to look at it first-hand."

She believes there's a market for the vehicle. "And as consumers get over things like range anxiety, which we're trying to crush that myth by providing over 12,000 charging stations across the country and a 300-mile range on this Mustang Mach-E, we think that the demand will grow and we're there to meet and try to build to the demand of the consumer." 

Automakers sold 236,067 electric vehicles in the first nine months of 2019, the most recent figures available from the Electric Drive Transportation Association. That outpaces the 234,745 sold during the same period in the previous year. In all, 361,307 were sold in 2018.

Advocates of electric vehicles have pleaded with Congress to do more to support EVs, but with gas prices low and consumers opting for SUVs and pickups in large numbers, lawmakers have largely sat on their hands.

Last year, Congress failed to include approve legislation introduced by U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, that would have tripled the 200,000 lifetime cap on the number of EVs per manufacturer that qualify for $7,500 tax credits. 

Bryan Atkinson, Ford Business Development Specialist for D.C. Region, said the automaker's decision to attach the iconic Mustang brand to its newest electric car shows the company's level commitment to the technology. 

"For us to put the Mustang badge on it says a lot about the direction where we think we're taking our electrification," he said. "There's no doubt that we think this vehicle is going to perform to the same standards that would typically expect out of a Mustang." 

Rachel McCleery, Ford Government and Public Policy Communications, said the company hopes lawmakers receive that message loud and clear after viewing its display at the Washington Auto Show. 

"Electrification is a huge priority for Ford," she said. "That's part of our over $11.5 billion investment to get more electric vehicles on the road. It's an important sustainability story for us to tell and we'll be telling that later today...For us, being more environmentally responsible is what's best for us, for the business, for customers, for the planet. We're committed to this and the Mach-E is a great vehicle for us to tell that story as lawmakers come through." 

Toyota Mirai at the Washington Auto Show.

Toyota Motor Co. made a similar calculation as it spotlighted its 2021 Toyota Mirai fuel-cell sedan at the Washington Auto Show. 

"There's a strong move toward electrification and we recognize that, particularly as we are trying to meet our environmental requirements," Jackie Birdsall, Senior Engineer at Toyota North America, said. 

Birdsall said Toyota decided to show the Mirai at the Washington Auto Show because there is typically more focus on battery-electric cars than hydrogen-powered vehicles. 

"There's an under-representation of fuel-cell electrics," she said. "This technology is 20 years in the making and we have such confidence in that we're planning to produce 30,000 of these vehicles a year....There's a lot of experience and a lot of R&D." 

Birdsall said Toyota currently produces 3,000 Mirais per year. 

She said hydrogen-powered vehicles would be an easier sell if there were more hydrogen fueling stations in the U.S. But Birdsall said the Japanese automaker still thought it was important to display the Mirai at the auto show that is mostly likely to catch the attention of Congress. 

"It's really get the word out that these vehicles are available with no compromise," she said. "You can fill up in five minutes and go 400 miles. We want people who are walking through the show to know when we're talking about all-electric vehicles, we're talking about fuel-cell electrics and battery-powered electrics. It's not up to us dictate what the choice is for consumers." 

Birdsall said Toyota would like to see hydrogen-powered vehicles get the same level of support from Congress as battery-powered electrics. Lawmakers recently extended an $8,000 tax credit for fuel-cell electrics that had expired in 2017, but the extension only runs through 2020. Carmakers are currently allowed to offer a $7,500 tax credit on up to 200,000 electric cars per manufacturer, but two companies — General Motors and Tesla — have already surpassed the mark. 

Ed Lewis, director of public policy communications at Toyota, said the Mirai was a perfect fit for the typical gadget-oriented audience of the Washington Auto Show. 

"This show is more attuned to new technology, safety and environmental stewardship," he said. "That's why we brought it here." 

McCleery said Ford is not just showing off its electrics at the Washington Auto Show to make lawmakers happy. 

"As we are making these business decisions, we're not being arbitrary about our decision to electrify vehicles, we're committed to electrifying the vehicles of nameplates that our customers know and love and already have a strong following too," she said. "I think that also just shows the commitment is not something that is meant to meet a regulatory requirement." 

Michelle Krebs, senior analyst for Autotrader, said carmakers always put an outsized spotlight on EVs at the Washington show.

"Electrification and alternative energy vehicles are always the focus of the Washington, D.C., auto show as a way to demonstrate to policymakers they are making progress on lower emissions and higher mileage," she said. "In 2020, a number of new EVs will be introduced in the U.S., so there is particular emphasis at this year’s show. Still, EV sales represent a teensy part of the market – less than 2% of new vehicles sold last year were EVs and most of those were Teslas."

Krebs said consumers who pass through the show next week are likely to be more interested in SUVs.

"SUVs represent the biggest percentage of new-vehicle sales," she said, "and, with a lot of new ones being introduced this year, that share is likely to rise."

klaing@detroitnews.com

202-662-8735

Twitter: @Keith_Laing