For the second time in three presidential debates, Mitt Romney namedropped electric vehicle manufacturers Tesla Motors and Fisker Automotive in criticizing loans made to green-tech companies under President Obama. While he didn’t refer to the companies as “losers” like he did during the first debate, Romney clearly isn’t thrilled about government support of the two automotive startups: “We’re going to have to have a president,” he said, “that doesn’t think that somehow the government investing in — in car companies like Tesla and — and Fisker, making electric battery cars — this is not research, Mr. President.”
Tortured syntax aside, after doling out the mandatory reference to the failed solar-energy startup Solyndra, Romney added, “I want to invest in research. Research is great. Providing funding to universities and think tanks — great. But investing in companies? Absolutely not.”
After the first debate, techies and startup enthusiasts were quick to pounce on Romney for calling out Tesla, which is no loser. Yes, it was approved for a $465 million loan from the Department of Energy’s $25 billion Advanced Technologies Vehicle Manufacturing Loan Program (ATVM) in June 2009, but just hours before that first debate, CEO Elon Musk wrote that Tesla intended to repay that loan early because it had excess cash to burn. And while Tesla has faced its share of recalls and delays, GigaOm’s Adam Lesser notes that recalls and delays are common in the electric vehicle industry. Excess cash, on the other hand, is not. Tesla also currently has 13,000 orders to fill of its Model S car and, since its IPO two years ago, its stock is has gone from $17 a share to around $27.
But what about Fisker? Its loan, approved in September 2009, was even bigger, totaling $529 million. Fisker drew about $193 million before the Department of Energy froze its loan, citing a failure to meet certain milestones. Since then Fisker has had a mixed record. On one hand, it’s been forced to recall thousands of its Karma model of cars due to fire risk. On the other it recently raised $100 million to add to a $1.2 billion total from private investors. CEO Tony Posawatz has said he wants to get past the company’s “missteps” as it works to complete its next model, the less expensive Atlantic.
Neither investment has gone off without a hitch, and Fisker’s future success is not a given. But to mention Fisker in the same breath as Solyndra, a colossally mismanaged company that declared bankruptcy after receiving $535 million in government loans, is disingenuous. And to compare Tesla to Solyndra is among the worst examples of “truthiness” we’ve seen in these debates.
It certainly won’t help Romney win over the Silicon Valley cognoscenti.