By on May 18, 2013

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.


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:

Company Loan Request Amount Company Status as of 5/13
Bright Automotive  $450 million  Shut down 2/12
Aptera  $150 million  Shut down 12/11
Coda  $334 million  Filed for bankrupcy 5/13
Think  Withheld under privacy laws  Multiple bankruptcies
Carbon Motors  $310 million  Plant shuttered
Next Auto Works  $342 milion  Factory cancelled in 2011
XP 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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44 Comments on “Has the Dept of Energy’s Advanced Technology Vehicle Manufacturing Program Been a Failure? Not Really...”

  • avatar

    Dump the program, take ten percent of the money and give it to DARPA and get similar results?

    • 0 avatar

      DARPA has its own funding, but the point of government-backed loan programs like this one is that the money is intended to have a multiplier effect, using public/private partnerships to combine government money with private and do more than either has the resources or willingness to do on its own.

      • 0 avatar

        It’s a great intention, but it’s loaded with downside, moral risk, and corruption opportunity. There is plenty of venture capital for good ideas. The DARPA competitions are much better. They give financial compensation that multiplies at a much higher rate. So, you take the desired result, reformat it using the existing DARPA program. We have way to much redundancy in these types of programs which are really on the fringe of what the government should be doing at all.

    • 0 avatar

      DARPA is a successful research funding agency. They’ve got a great track records, and have had some world-changing spillovers into the civilian world. For instance, DARPA funded the development of some of the foundation technologies of The Internet.

      But DARPA has a military focus, so everything they do will likely have a military application of some sort — even if it’s 20 years out and might change the civilian world, too. They’re not the only successful R&D funding agency, either — the National Science Foundation (fundamental esearch) and NIH (health) are also quite successful. For instance, the development of NCSA Mosaic (the first graphical and usable web browser) was funded by NSF, and Mosaic (and Netscape, it’s commercial offspring) did as much to popularize the Internet as its fundamental building blocks.

      The NSF can easily do DARPA-style research projects without a military application. The infrastructure is there, highly professional, and creative — I worked as a cog in that machine up until last year, before selling out and moving to the dot-com down the street. All that’s required is funding and a mission from Congress — we’ll do the rest. I’d happily go back, if I had a problem to solve, the power to do it, and my current salary[0]. I’d love to get out of bed every morning and solve the world’s problems.

      Also, public-private partnerships do work. But I agree there’s a lot of moral hazards there. I sat in some not-quite-so-smokey boardrooms (as an understudy and occasional explainer of engineering details) while some of these things were being considered — and it was clear that a) this was the only way things were going to get done because of our fiscal and hiring constraints and b) the details made me nervous at times. Public/private partnerships are usually beneficial to the government and corporate interests involved, but government+research+education are supposed to be for the benefit of everyone (especially the citizens), and that wasn’t often part of the discussion. Still, if you want to develop a new technology for a society, it’s “natural” to do high-risk pre-competitive R&D in the academic setting, and then let the private companies run with it once we prove the idea and that they can do the rest with minimal risk. And that pre-competitive expertise and know-how will eventually become public knowledge… Probably… Except that academic journal articles are really just magazine articles that summarize successful research projects and don’t often get in to the nitty gritty of things — for that, you still have to hang out with the grad students who did the work in the lab. I have great ideas about how to increase the transparency in research and publish the deeper details of research — but, at the level I was at, our survival depended on doing what the NSF grant said, so we’d have to change it at the NSF or congressional level.

      [0] I was one of those “lazy” “overpaid” government workers, making 66% of what I make doing the same work for the private company in the same town. But I couldn’t afford to support my wife, son, and a second child on that salary.

      • 0 avatar

        If you do it the way DARPA does, then just have DARPA do it. Its easier and more efficientto tell DARPA to add non defense goals than replicating them several times over. Roll them all into whoever does it best, though the health stuff might be better off separate. I am def not a fan of public private. As for making 66%, I think you were the odd duck. My experience is that a majority of government types make out better if they stay at it long enough.

        • 0 avatar

          Do you really want American R&D to be an entirely military enterprise?

          The DARPA model works for problems that are of interest to the military, but the other models are just as good and cover a wider variety of topics.

          If you enable the NSF and NIH to take more smart risks, then you’d get the same result without making the military do something that our military forces were never intended to do. Overseeing the civilian R&D apparatus really is just plain outside of the scope of national defense. Adding the responsibility of overseeing civilian R&D to the military’s already full plate would be unfair to everyone.

          Also, a lot of my former co-workers would walk the instant someone slapped “classified” on their work and insisted they get a security clearance to access their own work. Yes, there’s a thread of idealism that runs through the open science community — and there has to be, because these a very smart and skilled people who know they could be making more money if they worked pretty much anywhere else. So, you’ve either gotta work with the idealism or increase the government’s scientific labor costs to the market rate (+30% to +50%).

          • 0 avatar

            No, I in no way even implied that. You could demilitarize DARPA, whatever. Besides that, I would prefer R&D be a strictly private sector enterprise, but reasonable people disagree with me, so I just suggest it be done most efficiently.

  • avatar

    They really rolled the dice with Ford and Nissan.

  • avatar

    Do Ford and Nissan really need US Government support to develop advanced technologies? And especially Nissan. What is the point of supporting foreign company by US tax payers, isn’t like enough American companies were shut down unable to compete with foreign companies additionally supported by their respective governments and should said US taxpayers lose well paid middle class jobs because of that? Whole cities like Rochester and Detroit are in despair as a result. What is next – the US government will provide free loans to Chinese companies to successfully wipe out whatever left of American manufacturing.

    In my opinion only American start up companies should get any help from US Government – their chances of survival are already slim because established players with unlimited resources will do everything they can to destroy them – who wants more competition.

    • 0 avatar

      “American Companies”

      …you keep using that word: i do not think it means what you think it means…

      • 0 avatar

        One Ford is really turning Ford from an American company in to a global company.

        Note the change in their lobbying of the US government. The Big Three used to ask for protectionist regulations, now they’re asking for the removal of trade barriers so that they an cut their costs (by having fewer factories more widely dispersed).

    • 0 avatar
      Kyree S. Williams

      Right…because neither Nissan nor any other foreign automakers manufacture here in the States.

      The fact that a company is Japanese does not mean that all of the money goes to Japan.

      • 0 avatar

        Right – it is called third world country – the country which is not capable of designing and manufacturing products by itself and relies on foreign countries to come and employ its citizens. There are actually plenty of this kind of countries – like Brazil, Mexico, Russia and so on – a good company to join. And of course all R&D should be outsourced to China, India, Japan or Israel too. But of course Starbucks, McDonalds, KFC is what America does the best – there are plenty of them in Japan and other countries. Do you feel proud now?

        • 0 avatar

          In your view, which countries other than Japan are first world countries? The UK? Ford and GM are there. Germany? Ditto. Australia? VW assembles cars in France and Italy, GM in Korea. Sweden’s auto industry is owned by China. I don’t see your point. Global automotive production is a reality of the world we live in. Some countries have car companies’ HQs located in them. Some don’t. We do, for better or worse.

        • 0 avatar

          You know nothing. The us is still one of the largest automotive producing countries. I would think no matter who makes the cars those made in the US employee families and workers here. Thats a good thing as far as I’m concerned.

          Also many ‘Japanese’ Companies do R & D work here. What exactly makes a company foreign anyway. Even GM & FORD sell cars everywhere. That makes them no different.

          On a side note Russia has been designing and producing there own cars for quite a long time. They have foreign production locally not because they can’t build cars but because import tariffs are so high, along with a recycling fee imposed of foreign imports. Domestic Russian brands are still most preferred by Russians. Go there and you’ll see what I’m talking about.

          • 0 avatar

            Yup — the car business, and many of the companies, are global.

            Which car is more American — a Ford made in Turkey, or a Nissan made in Tennessee?

            Ford doesn’t care anymore. I have friends from both Tennessee and Turkey, so I don’t really care either.

            that said, I want to do more high-end R&D here in the USA and lead the world in engineering, science, and education. I am pretty patriotic when it comes to R&D. I’d love to go back to it, rather than spending my days making bank by annoying the Internet with advertising.

          • 0 avatar

            “Which car is more American — a Ford made in Turkey, or a Nissan made in Tennessee?

            Ford doesn’t care anymore. I have friends from both Tennessee and Turkey, so I don’t really care either.”

            Well that’s news to me. I knew Ford produced many turkeys over the years, but I never knew that Turkey produced Fords.

            Looks like Ford has lots of factories all over the world.


            Rolls Royce used to have a factory in Springfield Massachusetts that opened in 1921.

      • 0 avatar

        It does mean something in terms of who controls the capital. A foreign company producing goods is mainly just employing labor – a domestic company is generating capital for investment and has implications regarding control of technology and intellectual rights.

        I’m not an expert here but it does make a difference.

        • 0 avatar

          This explains why so many GM cars are developed in Korea, Ford’s lineup is full of their European models, and Chrysler is owned by Italians while selling vehicles with platforms developed in Italy, Germany, and Japan. I guess there’s always Tesla. What percentage of their equity is held by Toyota?

  • avatar

    I’m trying but failing to see the ‘advanced technology’ in a lot of what we laid money out for. Sweetheart loans for Ford and Nissan to upgrade their factories, as opposed to raising capital the old fashioned way? A car so ugly (VPG) that people would prefer to walk than be seen in it? A diesel cop car with suicide doors? For that matter, there’s nothing particularly high tech about EVs or hybrids, series or parallel, anymore. Been there, done that, now on sale at a dealer near you.

    If government insists on funding technology, let it be for real science. Make a loan to somebody who wants to develop a durable, practical fuel cell that won’t cost NASA money to produce, or a better battery, or even an advanced ICE like that OPOC design we read about here in 2010.

  • avatar

    Whodathunk… with all the noise and all.

  • avatar
    Friends in high places

    Nice spin. That is pretty interesting but curious why you left out the 120+ other ATVM loan car companies that applied? Where is ZAP, Brammo, and all the rest? Why did you not comment on Daryl Siry, the marketing head of Tesla, writing an article called “Doe stifles innovation” in Wired?
    In fact, DOE staff and associates solicited all of those companies and told them they had equal access to funding. Then John Doerr and David Axelrod ordered every applicant cut off so they did not compete with Fisker & Tesla. All those companies ratcheted up expenses based on DOE assertions. DOE staff killed the American auto industry, except for campaign contributors.

    • 0 avatar

      I had to login just to point that you need to read the WHOLE article before making comments. Just search on ZAP, then remember to apologize.

    • 0 avatar

      You mean Darryl Siry, who was for the ATVM before he was against it?

      You are of course referring to Mr. Siry’s op-ed where he was lobbying on behalf of Coda as a consultant to Coda. Only a year earlier, when he was not a consultant to Coda, he said instead:

      www dot wired dot com/autopia/2009/10/federal-loans-to-ev-startups-foolish-bet-or-wise-investment/

      “That said, a careful reading of the conditional commitment letters available on the DOE website reveals a rigorous and disciplined process for disbursing money quarterly, extensive oversight of the progress of the programs versus promised milestones and strict requirements for the companies’ financial performance and cash position to minimize risk. Furthermore, taxpayers will enjoy an equity upside in the form of warrants if the companies do succeed.

      In light of these conditions and restrictions, it is hard to cast the loans as a reckless use of taxpayer money. In fact, an optimist would consider them a wise investment indeed.”

      As we now know Coda did end up applying for an ATVM loan after all and got refused, so he was just talking his book.

      It appears that someone has tried to draw attention to Mr. Siry’s op-ed all over the web. Perhaps someone tinfoil-hatted as well, I suspect. Mr. Siry’s op-ed makes no such tinfoil-hatted allegations towards John Doerr and David Axelrod.

  • avatar

    If you really think criticism of government “investment” is based on the financial results, you’re missing the point. Or maybe you think that, if they had a really good tip on the Preakness, the government should have taken a few trillion to the track? The job of the Federal Government is to do those very few, limited tasks assigned to it by the ratified Constitution. Everything else, good idea or bad, is reserved to the people and the states. Our politicians are liars and traitors to their oath of office.

  • avatar
    Chris O

    No risk no gain. Sure loaning the money to Ford and Nissan is safe, but Ford used it to make the more efficient cars they would have been required to make because of increasingly stringent MPG mandates anyway and Nissan….not sure what they spent the $1.4 billion on. They somehow managed to spend a lot more cash than Tesla did on Model S, except the Leaf was already an existing design and the production capacity that was created seems to be mainly used for run of the mill ICE products due to lack of demand for the Leaf.

    Venturing money on start ups is risky but since this is about energy the potential pay off is huge. Tesla is really establishing it self as a disruptive carmaker that forces the rest of the pack to take EVs more seriously than doing the odd compliance car to keep CARB happy. If Tesla manages to speed up the shift away from petroleum the losses on the failures will be negligible compared to the gains.

  • avatar

    Thanks for a (seemingly rare) positive look at this program – certainly less than perfect, but if it helps technology development and U.S. jobs, it’s surely a welcome thing.

    • 0 avatar

      I agree. With all the rabid Tesla bashing it is refreshing to see how the DOE money was distributed.

      In particular Ford seems to get a free pass on this site. In fact they received about $6,000,000,000 in DOE loans, far more in very low interest loans, and their ceo pays himself over $21,000,000 per year. All of this seems overlooked because they didn’t go into bankruptcy like GM. But make no mistake: without government intervention Ford would be dying a slow death. And Mulally would be at the country club ranting about socialism.

  • avatar

    The problem with these types of loan ideas is that they’re trying to force future technology into today’s world. “The car of the future !” is a marketing slogan that’s been used over and over in the past by car makers. Many of the “cars of the future” flopped at the time because the public wasn’t ready for radical changes.

    Evolution happens at it’s own pace, you can’t force the future to happen today, and this is exactly what the government is trying to do. We don’t need to waste taxpayer money on private businesses that are trying to create technology that isn’t needed in today’s world. When the price of gas or diesel gets high enough then electric vehicles will make financial sense, at this point we’re not there yet. The price of fuel is still low enough that even hybrid cars don’t make sense as a way to save money, and electric cars make even less sense.

    The Aptera was a car where they had the right idea with the extremely aerodynamic body shape, but they screwed up the execution by making it electric powered. If they’d have used the same lightweight construction, and used a small gas or diesel engine instead, they would have had a great car that would have gotten fantastic highway mileage. Instead, they tried to go too high tech by making it electric powered. I’m suprised one of the kit car makers didn’t buy the design from them after they folded, it’d have made a good car with a Geo Metro 3-cylinder engine or a motorcycle engine.

    What the government should be investing money in is more ways to make commercial vehicles more energy efficient. They have a whole fleet of postal vehicles that would be perfect for a KERS system, or even a hybrid system. If the government wants to force future technology into the present day, then they should be the guinea pigs. Try the technology out on government fleet vehicles first to prove it out, then let the technology trickle down to the consumer level.

  • avatar

    [paraphrase]Has the AVTM been an economic failure? From a political standpoint, no.[/paraphrase]


    The problem with politics and the general public is that the argument is rarely understood. Society orders a $20 one-pound-hamburger to feed a socio-economic need. Certain factions criticize the decision, and the pea-brained public, led by their political ring leaders, commence to debate about the value of the one-pound-hamburger and whether or not it was healthful and had good flavor. Some hamburger lovers feel compelled to claim that hamburger is the worst food ever made. Some vegetarians proclaim that hamburger is the most healthy option on the menu. Information and governmental representation perish is a whirlwind of stupid.

    In fact, the argument is not about the quality of the hamburger or of the ATVM. The argument is that the menu also listed a $20 Filet Mignon, $20 Veal Cutlet, $20 Halibut Filet, and a $20 Cornish Hen.

    Did the hamburger feed us? Yes. Did the hamburger taste relatively good? Yes. Was the hamburger affordable on the US budget? Yes. Was the hamburger a success? Only if you were ignorant enough to order without looking at the menu.

    The cost of DOE loans is subsidized by all taxpayers in the event of a failure. In the event of a success, the loans are paid back by the early-adopting customers……though we are developing alternative technology b/c it benefits everyone. Awesome! DOE loans alter the risk-reward proposition by clumsily in-sourcing all of the risk to the taxpayers. DOE loans create enormous opportunities for corruption. DOE loans reward regulatory “consultants” who know how to leap through the application process, not innovators.

    Imagine if the DOE had simply purchased 5,000 Karmas as official diplomatic vehicles at $100,000 per and distributed them to federal departments around the country. The bill would have run $500M, but the government would actually have functioning vehicles for their money and they’d be bending the cost curve by shifting demand and economies of scale for alternative vehicles. By placing a firm order, the risk remains in the private sector, but the promise of revenue makes it easier to gather capital. The regulatory burden is reduced for private companies b/c they only deliver cars.

    Consider the effect of granting $5,000 point-of-sale rebates to all customers who buy vehicles rated at or above 54.5mpg CAFE (40EPA). Contemplate the effect of issuing $5,000 prizes for each vehicle a manufacturer sells in excess of 40mpg EPA. Even if Toyota moved 1M Prii (7x annual sales), the cost to the taxpayer would only be $5B, and our balance of trade would would improve immediately.

    The DOE knows that a majority of start ups fail, especially those who can’t get ordinary private-sector financing, and they know much of the loan money will be lost. The DOE creates the loan charade to make it appear as though the public will not be out any money. The loan programs are effectively corrupt and inferior at their inception. To suggest otherwise seems a bit naive.

    • 0 avatar

      “though we are developing alternative technology b/c it benefits everyone.”

      Sorry, but alternative energy does not benefit everyone, if it did then private companies would have a compelling case to make a widespread leap on their own, as it stands it’s slowly getting a fair bit of attention, but the push by the gov’t is useless as it is yet to be found if alternative energy has reason to be adopted outside of a niche, other than to fill a niche there is no reason for alternative energy.

      Thus, the original line I quoted from you is not in fact true.

      • 0 avatar

        The benefits of alternative energy and fuel saving devices are apparent to anyone who reads the annual US trade report, provided by the census gov to all Americans for no additional cost. In 2012, our oil trade imbalance was $291B or roughly 40% of our entire trade deficit. In the era of $20 oil, the government liked to tell the citizenry that oil was a vital input of production to keep our economy surging forward. In the era of $100-$150 oil, imports have revealed themselves for the dead weight loss they really are.

        Since the cost of oil imports is about 1%-2% GDP growth, all Americans bear the brunt of wasteful petroleum usage, and there is no reason to suspect that these costs would motivate the private financial sector to lend.

  • avatar

    Batting .600 in baseball might be fantastic, but .600 on a loan represents a loss. So I’m not sure this could be called a success.

  • avatar

    And .6 is only .1 better than the results from drawing straws or flipping coins. I’m not impressed.

    But as has been said, taking money from Peter to pay Paul will always receive Paul’s approval.

  • avatar

    Thank you for a very factual article – and being one of the only jornos/bloggers willing to commit to electrons that this program started under Bush.

    • 0 avatar

      I’m sure it was his intention that all loans awarded would be based on applicants’ Obama campaign donation record. Bush made many mistakes. This program was one of them. Obama used it as his personal patronage mechanism. That isn’t right either.

  • avatar

    Brown – Nope
    Diesel – Nope
    Wagon – Nope
    Stick Shift – Nope
    Panther Platform – Nope

    Have fun with this one…I’m out.

  • avatar

    Loans granted are one thing; loans actually drawn down are completely different. At VPG, while the size of the loan may have been $50 mil, the amount withdrawn was significantly below that level. The DoE had so many strings on the purse that it resembled an NPR matching grant program. There was plenty of (almost enough) PE funding, but any attempt to secure additional private funding was hampered by seemingly bureaucratic indifference. IMHO.
    Of all the 2,200 cars built, couldn’t you have used a better-looking shot of the car than the original Standard Taxi design which was never put into production?

  • avatar

    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.

  • avatar

    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”

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