Has the Dept of Energy's Advanced Technology Vehicle Manufacturing Program Been a Failure? Not Really

Ronnie Schreiber
by Ronnie Schreiber

Critics of the current administration have pointed to the impending bankruptcy of Fisker Automotive and the recent suspension of operations at taxi maker Vehicle Production Group as examples of why the government shouldn’t be picking winners and losers in it’s zeal to promote alternative energy. The DoE effort under which those two companies received financing is the Advanced Technology Vehicle Manufacturing Program, ATVM. Putting aside political ideologies, contrary to the image given by the apparent failure of Fisker and VPG, the ATVM program actually has a pretty decent track record when it comes to picking winners and losers.

has the dept of energys advanced technology vehicle manufacturing program been a

Revolution Motors

The ATVM was actually started during the Bush administration, in 2007 and received $25 billion funding from Congress in 2008, before President Obama took office, though the final determination of all loans awarded so far has been made by the Obama administration. Only a few loans have been made so far, so it’s easy track the program. In part the small number of loans is because of the political fallout over the 2011 failure of Solyndra, which got over a half billion dollars from the DoE as part of a different program at the DoE. So far less than $9 billion of that $25 billion has been awarded and none since March of 2011, though in the video above, posted in March of 2012, the Department of Energy explicitly was soliciting more companies to apply for loans.

Vehicle Production Group

Of the car companies that were actually awarded loans, the DoE did pretty well, three out of five seem to be thriving. Ford was the primary recipient of ATVM loans, $5.9 billion, used to upgrade factories in six states. Nissan came next, with $1.45 billion, used for a battery factory and preparing their Smyrna, Tennessee plant for Leaf production. Tesla, currently flying high with investors and now producing Model S EVs at a rate of 20K/year, got $465 million and has repaid it in full.


The status of Ford and Nissan’s debt to the ATVM is unclear, though I presume they are not behind in their payments. Ford has been very aggressive in retiring corporate debt since its turnaround following the mortgaging of the company for something like $23.6 billion in 2006. Of the two failures, Fisker got promised just over a half billion, of which about $200 million was drawn before the DoE put the brakes on after Fisker failed to meet loan criteria, and VPG got the smallest loan, $50 million.

Bright Automotive

Not only is the ATVM currently batting .600 on moneys disbursed, looking at the companies that have been turned down for loans, the Department of Energy has actually done a even better job picking winners and losers in determining which startup car companies had truly viable business plans.


While it’s true that two out of the three startups funded under the program are failures, assuming that Tesla is indeed a success, those three were the only automotive startups out of 18 that applied were approved for loans. We know about seven of those rejected because they went public with the denial. All seven are pretty much out of business today. Of them, only Coda actually produced real production cars for sale to the public and in their case they only sold about 100 cars. Perhaps if your business model is significantly dependent on government financing, maybe you need a different business model. Tesla has had ample private financing and looks to be viable, but Fisker had over a billion dollars put up by private investors, about six times the amount loaned by taxpayers, and even that wasn’t sufficient.

XP Vehicles

In addition to Fisker, VPG and Tesla, whose loans were approved, companies that applied for loans and went public with their refusal, were:

CompanyLoan Request AmountCompany Status as of 5/13Bright Automotive $450 million Shut down 2/12Aptera $150 million Shut down 12/11Coda $334 million Filed for bankrupcy 5/13Think Withheld under privacy laws Multiple bankruptciesCarbon Motors $310 million Plant shutteredNext Auto Works $342 milion Factory cancelled in 2011XP Vehicles $40 Suing Dept of Energy over claims of political bias

Next Autoworks

Actually, a lot more than 7 other companies applied for loans. A Freedom of Information Act request filed in 2009 revealed a list of 108 applicants. So in all, there were only five companies approved for ATVM loans and 103 that were rejected or put on hold. Looking over the FOIA response, I identified another eight automobile startup companies, Zap, Revolution Motors, Electrorides, Wrightspeed, Phoenix Motors, Electric Motors Corp, Environmental Transport Solutions, and Local Motors.

Carbon Motors

Zap has been perpetually troubled, Revolution hasn’t gotten beyond a prototype for their leanable reverse trike, and Electric Motors is out of business. Four of the companies that seem to be surviving, Electrorides, Wrightspeed, Phoenix and Environmental Transport, are concentrating on electrified commercial vehicles, not passenger cars. It look like investing money, private or public, in startup passenger car companies, is not a very good bet.


Rather than being a profligate waste of taxpayers’ money, the Advanced Technology Vehicle Manufacturing Program appears to have been managed in a responsible manner. The majority of the companies that received funding are in business and appear to be thriving. The majority of startup car companies, which are high risk enterprises in the first place, that were turned down for loans or that had their applications put on hold in 2011, are either no longer in business or financially troubled.

Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can dig deeper at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS

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3 of 44 comments
  • It's only a failure because I WASN'T RUNNING IT. Let me in there and I'll be building VEYRON KILLERS you can charge during a night's sleep.

  • Type57SC Type57SC on May 21, 2013

    So what was that I keep hearing the press, including cheerleaders like Autoline, parrot about when they introduce Ford? something like "Ford, the only domestic automaker to not take government money, daringly upgraded the Aston-look Fusion today by adding the color light saddle metallic"

  • Syke Son of a Chevrolet dealer back then, grew up in the showroom. To this day, I cannot get the appeal of the '57 Chevy, must less it being the poster car of the rock and roll Fifties. The '55 was gorgeous, the '56 wasn't hurt too badly by the dealer-demanded restyle (full width grilles were in style, and the '55 didn't have one, so the dealers panicked), but the '57? A bad attempt to keep up with Ford and Plymouth, redeemed only by the continuation of the Tri-Five build quality (exceptional for it's day) while the '57 Ford and Plymouth turned out to be rust buckets.$35,000? No. Freaking. Way.Oh, by the way, that was the year Ford outsold Chevy for the first time since pre-WWII. Style was everything back then. As the son of the Ford dealer (in my grade school class) was more than happy to remind me constantly.All was redeemed by 1958. Even if the '58's weren't as well built as a Tri-Fives.
  • Pianoboy57 Green is my favorite color but I never owned an actual green car. Then I got a Subaru Outback in Wilderness green.
  • SCE to AUX Will Toyota be building a Superfiller network to support its vast fleet of FCVs?Didn't think so.
  • MaintenanceCosts I have an irrational weakness for Biarritz and d'Elegance packages of this era and the button tufted seats that came with them. We're sort of getting back there with the current quilted leather fad, but only sort of.
  • Ajla Do journalists ever ask the automakers that like building hydrogen cars to acknowledge that there is no place to fill them? And where they expect future filling stations to come from?