by Lucia Green-Weiskel

An artist friend of mine was visiting from out of town last week. I took her to the Chelsea art galleries – our ritual when we have time together in New York.

Some of the art demonstrated clear talent and skill, other galleries I found clearly provocative and obscure. I was getting accustomed to transitioning between different styles, approaches, colors and materials as we walked from gallery to gallery. So when I entered the gallery at 511 West 25th Street and saw a show room of Tesla electric automobiles I thought it was some clever artist’s idea of ironic commentary.

But, more shocking to me than the painting of the Holy Virgin Mary made from elephant dung, was the fact that the electric car, the symbol of the new green economy, the longest-promised innovation of the 20th century, is now in the 21st century sitting in an art gallery. How can this giddy hunk of aerodynamic steel that looks like art (and is priced like art) actually be, as Thomas Friedman puts it, the “pivotal” piece of the new green economy?

Not that I didn’t admire the Tesla. It was a beautiful thing to look at.

One might argue that Teslas are in art galleries because they are a high-end car (starting at $101,500). But this is just the extreme case of the dominant trend for electric cars in America. Instead of the “car of the people” – EVs are often prohibitively expensive, rarely available second-hand and difficult to find. (Starting price for US-made hybrid and electric cars: Ford Fusion hybrid $27,950, Lexus GS hybrid $57,450, Chevy Volt EV $40,280, Cadillac Escalade hybrid $73,425, or their foreign counter-parts, the Toyota Prius hybrid, $22,800 or the Nissan Leaf EV $32,780.)

I couldn’t help but think back to my tour of a Chinese electric car factory just two months prior, of the BYD (or Build Your Dreams) automobile plant in Shenzhen. A young enthusiastic worker named Ren Miao met me at the gate with a warm grin wearing a lab coat. As we toured the immaculate facility, with white floors and walls, high ceilings and a constant flow of smiling purposeful workers all dressed in the same suit bustling to and fro, I thought I was in a dream in which I had sneaked into some secret government laboratory. Ren explained to me the BYD founding principles: equality (between employees — even employee and boss), innovation, passion and factuality. Their goal is to produce electric vehicles, solar panels and other low-carbon technologies and make them available at a cost advantage over their fossil-fuel competitors. He showed me a mini diagram set under glass in the center of their show room of what the complex will look like in five years: completely run off of solar and wind power, with staff dorms, recreation, fitness centers and the outside world all linked with state-of-the-art public transit supplemented with all electric taxis and tree-lined bike lanes. I can only find one word to describe it: utopian.

The difference between the American and Chinese electric car company has everything to do with both countries respective government policies. China generously subsidizes all aspects of the EV industry including the developers, manufacturers and consumers as well as the development of a network of charging stations at feasible distances from one another across China. As a result, EV and hybrid cars in China range from $15,000-$22,000 without consumer subsidies, and up to half that with the subsidies.

The US meanwhile is subsidizing battery technology and consumers get a tax credit with the purchase of an EV or hybrid car ($7,500 for EVs and $2,500 for hybrids). But it’s not enough. We must also adopt the utopian attitude. Like his counterpart in China, Obama must approach the EV market as a whole and consider subsidies of all aspects of the industry, including manufacturing and building charging stations. For the US to stay afloat in the economy of the 21st century, Obama must think and plan for large scale change. As Thomas Friedman says, “the country that replaces gasoline-powered vehicles with electric-powered vehicles — in an age of steadily rising oil prices and steadily falling battery prices — will have a huge cost advantage and independence from imported oil.”

One final point which China seems to have figured out but the US hasn’t: The shift to an electric transport economy is not just about producing the cars and charging stations. It is also about revolutionizing the electricity grid from which the cars will pull their energy. Unless the grid is energized from renewable sources, electric cars will only move pollution from the tailpipe to the smoke stack. Again, through central planning and aggressive government investment, China is advancing plans for a “smart grid” which depends on renewable sources for 20% of its energy (solar and wind in this case, China does not include hydropower as renewable).  And meanwhile in the US, wind and solar technology, for the large part, remains a DIY boutique industry.