For one thing, what does he mean by "leapfrog?" Does the McCain car have to be 10?% better? 20% better? or 30% better? Will a marginal improvement suffice? Moreover, who is going to decide whether the goal is met? environmentalists? the automakers? the government? These people can not agree on what we should do to reduce air pollution; I can't imagine the fights that will occur over what constitutes a technological "leap."
McCain wants the car to deliver a power source at 30% of the "current costs." Does that mean costs as of 2008 or whenever this wonder car is ready to be sold to consumers? How does he define "costs?" Is it the total cost of ownership or a reduction in the sticker price or something else entirely? Why limit it to batteries? What about hydrogen fuel cells whose only pollution is water vapor?
In a speech he delivered today, McCain pointed out that "right now we have a hodgepodge of incentives for the purchase of fuel-efficient cars." Indeed, purchasing a hybrid only makes economic sense for the most die-hard of tree huggers. But is the answer to skyrocketing gasoline price to be found in a contest? I am not so sure.
The $300 million seems like it may cover a fraction of the product development costs for Ford Motor Co., (NYSE: F) General Motors Co. (NYSE: GM), or Chrysler LLC. of bringing this new type of vehicle to market. Toyota Motor Corp. (NYSE: TM) and Honda Motor Ltd. (NYSE: HMC) already are light years ahead of the U.S. automakers in alternative fuel vehicles and may reach the McCain milestones without a prize.
Whichever automaker lays claim to this prize -- if Congress ever approves it -- probably will seek loads of additional tax breaks for itself and for the people who buy the wonder car. For a guy who hates big government, McCain sure does not mind giving away taxpayers' money through a prize that will need to be administered through a large cumbersome bureaucracy.
Maybe the prize has something to do with his new "energy security" advertising campaign. Remember that automakers are having trouble keeping up with the surging demand for hybrid vehicles now because they are "unable to make enough batteries and other hybrid component systems to meet rising global demand," according to the Detroit Free Press. Why not give a prize for solving that problem?
The McCain plan, just like his call for a gas tax holiday, is just a stunt to distract voters from the Republican's sorry record on the environment.