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Former NSC Robert C. O’Brien: U.S. Must Catch Up on EV and AV Automotive Technology

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Image Credit: Creative Commons.

Electric and autonomous vehicles are taking center stage in America’s technology competition with China. Unfortunately, the United States risks falling behind in this key area. 

EV and AV technologies will create thousands of American jobs. Consumer demand for these cars is growing fast. Last year over 5.2 million EVs were sold worldwide, a 13 percent increase over 2021 sales. By 2027 EV sales are projected to exceed 13 million. AVs are becoming more capable and are gradually rolling out across major cities as a new form of ride-sharing platform. 

China plans to dominate the development and manufacturing of EVs and AVs. The CCP is pouring vast subsidies into these technologies as part of its “China 2025” initiative. When it comes to producing batteries for EVs, China accounts for over 70 percent of the world’s supply. China is the largest processor of critical energy minerals like lithium as well as rare earth elements that are essential to EV batteries and motors. Beijing will use its mineral supply chain leverage over the U.S. and its allies just as it did to Japan in 2010 during a diplomatic showdown. 

Chinese advances in AV technology are noteworthy. CCP-linked companies have access to troves of PRC consumer and vehicle data to develop their AV capabilities. Chinese AV company AutoX has already unveiled its fleet of autonomous “Robo Taxis” in Shenzhen, China. It is becoming a global pacesetter as average Chinese consumers are using their taxis daily. AutoX has now set its sights on the U.S. market. In 2020, the company received approval from the California Department of Motor Vehicles to test “Robo Taxis” on public roads.

There are also reports that some U.S. companies are planning to collaborate with Chinese automakers in the coming years. American demand for AVs could be met by China, to the detriment of our national security. The intelligence collection opportunities, in that case, would be unlimited for the CCP.

In a recent letter to the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Congressman August Pfluger of Texas noted the apparent lack of oversight for permitting such Chinese AV technologies to test on American roads. He said, “a lack of U.S. oversight in AV technology has opened the door for a foreign nation to spy on American soil, as Chinese companies potentially transfer critical data to the People’s Republic of China.” Congressman Pfluger is 100 percent correct.

China is so aware of the intelligence collection value of EVs and AVs that it placed its own restrictions on the ability of foreign-made vehicles to drive on roads near People’s Liberation Army bases and Chinese Communist Party meetings. 

To succeed in the EV/AV competition with China, American industry has major catching up to do. The U.S. government will have to play a supporting role. America lacks sufficient domestic supply and processing of lithium, cobalt, manganese, nickel, and graphite, all critical minerals needed to produce the most common EV batteries. America can extract much of what is needed here at home. To do so, the slow and cumbersome process to authorize extraction and processing must change immediately.

The government must protect Americans from having their sensitive data mined by Chinese AVs operated in the U.S. 

America also requires a forward-looking legal structure that will enable American AVs to scale quickly.

The EV section of the Inflation Reduction Act was an important first step in leveling the playing field with Beijing. The “Clean Vehicle Credit” for eligible EVs with batteries and battery minerals sourced from North American plants will spur demand for the American EV market. The IRA must be implemented as it was intended to support American companies. The point of the bill is to foster a domestic battery industry here in the United States. Chinese companies must be excluded or we will simply end up assisting the CCP’s “China Dream” with U.S. tax dollars. 

Several states are showing the way on this front. Virginia Governor Youngkin this week rejected plans by CCP-linked battery maker CATL to open a plant in the Commonwealth and to reap the benefit from state economic incentives. Sadly, other politicians, even in the aftermath of China’s spy balloon stunt, have not gotten the message. Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer just approved $715 million in incentives for Gotion, Inc., a Chinese company, to build a $2.4 billion EV battery facility in Big Rapids. What a big win for Beijing.

America can win the competition with China and preserve its way of life. We can remain the beacon of freedom for the world. To win, we must keep our tech advantage. Domestic development and production of EVs, AVs and their batteries are critical to holding our edge.

Robert C. O’Brien is the Co-founder and chairman of American Global Strategies LLC. He was the 27th United States National Security Advisor from 2019 – 2021. O’Brien served as the President’s principal advisor in all aspects of American foreign policy and national security affairs. O’Brien brought a renewed focus on defense and industrial base issues to the NSC. A long-time advocate of sea power and a 355-ship Navy, O’Brien visited leading shipyards during his tenure. He also spent time at defense plants and with our troops at bases around the world. During O’Brien’s time as National Security Advisor, the United States orchestrated the historic Abraham Accords in the Middle East, brokered economic normalization between Serbia and Kosovo, achieved significant defense spending increases among our NATO allies, and increased cooperation with America’s allies across the Indo-Pacific. Before serving as NSA, O’Brien was the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs with the personal rank of Ambassador. He was directly involved in the return of over 25 detainees and hostages to the United States. O’Brien previously served as Co-Chairman of the U.S. Department of State Public-Private Partnership for Justice Reform in Afghanistan under both Secretaries of State Rice and Clinton.

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Robert C. O'Brien is the Co-founder and chairman of American Global Strategies LLC. He was the 27th United States National Security Advisor from 2019 – 2021. O’Brien served as the President’s principal advisor all aspects of American foreign policy and national security affairs.