Obama Should Challenge Country to Make a Clean Energy Automobile

It's time to reinvent the car.

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Bradley A. Blakeman served as deputy assistant to President George W. Bush from 2001-04. He is currently a professor of Politics and Public Policy at Georgetown University.

This week President Obama will deliver his State of the Union. The most remembered addresses are the ones that inspire and challenge us. Today, America needs to be challenged and inspired. I believe today's challenge rests in clean and affordable energy and the inspiration to achieve it can come through a speech coupled with a call to action.

The key to prosperity lies in innovation and invention.

In the 1800s with the invention of the internal combustion engine, (one that runs on fossil fuel) and the adaptation of that engine to people moving, the world was forever changed.

By 1896, an American inventor and automobile pioneer named Henry Ford had built his first horseless carriage. In 1903 he incorporated the Ford Motor Company. He saw that this new invention of moving people by engine had the potential to revolutionize America and the world. He knew that a people mover that most Americans could afford and was able to be powered by cheap and abundant fuel would create a new and vast market almost overnight. Henry Ford's application of the assembly line process of car building was as revolutionary as the invention of the internal combustion engine itself. By 1914, the assembly of a Model T was so effective that it took a mere 93 minutes to build a car.

The irony is that if Henry Ford were alive today and went to any local Ford dealer or any other car maker for that matter and popped the hood of any gasoline powered car he would be shocked, amazed, and disappointed. He would be shocked and amazed at the computerized advancements to the gizmos and gadgets which enhance the driving experience and he would be disappointed that little has changed in the 170 years or so since the invention of the internal combustion engine he manufactured.

Why is it that no revolutionary change has come to automobiles operation and efficiency in over 100 years?

Well if you like conspiracy theories you would blame the oil companies. You would argue that they did not want to see the demise of the internal combustion engine because of the loss of the market used to fuel them. [See a slide of a reality check on America's energy sources.]

On the other hand, it can be argued that we got dumb, fat, and lazy. We were content with what we had and were satisfied with incidental improvements to our automobiles that were more geared to our comfort than efficiency. And the abundance of fuel at a relatively affordable price did not make replacement a priority.

The great inventions in our lifetime have come in computers. But, where are our other great inventors? How many gas crises must we endure? How much more beholden to foreign sources of fossil fuel must we be? We should want to be clean and more efficient not because its fashionable but because it makes economic and civic sense.

I submit that America needs a "big think" on energy. We need to put government and private resources and incentives to making the internal combustion energy a thing of the past as soon as possible.

When President Kennedy in 1961 challenged America to get to the Moon by the close of the decade, we did not have the technology to make that challenge a reality. Many scoffed, however many more were inspired. Our nation was put to the test. Government incentivized and business delivered. Look at how many of products we use today were developed out of that effort. Even though President Kennedy was not alive to see his vision become reality, he still gets the credit for having achieved it.

Today our government loans tens of billions of dollars to automobile companies for failure. What if our government were to offer billions of dollars for performance?

I suggest our government offer a $25 billion tax free prize to the American car company that can build a car that is clean (no pollution foot print in design, production, and use), can achieve a range of at least 350 miles per powering, achieve 60 mph in 7 seconds or less, could be built in numerous marketable configurations, and is affordable to the average American. This prize would sunset in 7 years from the date of its announcement. [See a slide show of 8 ways to go green and save on taxes.]