Can America Achieve Obama’s Innovative Goals?
The President gives the 2010 State of the Union Address.
CREDIT: Pete Souza, 1/25/11
Last night, despite the specter of the two longest wars in U.S. history, rising partisan rancor and the assassination attempt of a member of Congress, President Barack Obama used his State of the Union address to discuss innovation and technology. Over the course of the address, Obama mentioned innovation nine times, more than he mentioned either Iraq or Afghanistan. And as if that emphasis wasn’t enough, the president also paired innovation goals with the deficit as the only two subjects for which he proposed quantitative, concrete policy objectives.
“What we can do – what America does better than anyone – is spark the creativity and imagination of our people,” Obama said. “ We are the nation that put cars in driveways and computers in offices; the nation of Edison and the Wright brothers; of Google and Facebook. In America, innovation doesn't just change our lives. It's how we make a living.”
In those goals — notably his plans for high-speed rail, broadband Internet access and electric vehicles (EVs) — Obama freely mixed practical, attainable targets with proposals far beyond America's fiscal and logistical capabilities:
- High-Speed Rail: The president called for the method of public transportation to reach 80 percent of the U.S. within 25 years.
- Broadband Coverage: The president aimed for 98 percent of Americans to receive coverage within five years.
- Electric Vehicles: Obama called for America to become the first nation to have more than a million EVs by 2015.
America can hit the EV target set by Obama last night — and while it's likely to be difficult and expensive, the pervasive broadband coverage may not lay beyond the realm of possibility, experts believe. The high-speed rail proposal, however, may prove prohibitively costly and complex.
A million cars, no oil
Even though electric cars remain a rare sight on most of America’s roads, the next four years will witness a drastic increase in both the manufacture of and demand for EVs.
“It's an ambitious goal, but it is doable,” said Daniel J. Weiss, a senior fellow and director of climate strategy at the Center for American Progress, a progressive nonprofit. “So as oil prices rise, which they're expected to do, demand is only going to increase. The key thing to boost it is to makes sure there is recharging infrastructure in parking lots and apartment buildings and for people who aren’t able to charge a car in their own garage.”
The first of those million EVs have already hit the highway, and they will soon be joined by many more. General Motors alone plans on producing 60,000 plug-in hybrid Chevy Volts in 2012, and the infrastructure to service those cars — such as charging stations — would only cost approximately $1.5 billion, a little more than the construction costs of Cowboys Stadium, Weiss told TechNewsDaily.
An end to dial-up
Reaching 98 percent broadband penetration is less daunting than it initially may seem because America is already halfway there. Even though America lags behind many north European and Asian countries in high-speed Internet adoption , a 2009 study by the Department of Commerce found that 64 percent of Americans have home broadband Internet access.
The difficulty of meeting the president’s goal lies in the makeup of the other 32 percent. From an infrastructure perspective, the 64 percent of Americans with broadband access are the low hanging fruit of connectivity. They are mainly affluent and urban, while poor and rural areas remain on dial-up, or go without home Internet access altogether.
Wiring those isolated and impoverished areas could prove prohibitively expensive. According to the telecom industry analysis firm Insight Research Corporation, providing broadband could cost as much as $1,500 per household. Assuming an average of four people per household, providing home broadband access to the 96 million Americans needed to fulfill Obama’s challenge would cost about $144 trillion.
This train’s going nowhere
Whereas putting a million EVs on the road is within our grasp — and wiring the country with broadband is doable, if expensive — Obama’s goal of uniting the nation through high-speed rail may prove nearly impossible.
America’s 20 largest cities only contain about 9 percent of the U.S. population, and plans to connect those cities to their nearest neighbors via high-speed rail have already met with funding problems, political opposition and technical difficulties.
The only existing high-speed rail line — Amtrak's Acela Express, which connects Boston, New York and Washington D.C. — actually averages 80 miles per hour during its route, far slower than true high-speed rail. As for a new, truly high-speed rail system, only California and Florida have currently allocated funds for construction.
"We don’t have anybody in this country who knows how to operate a high-speed rail system, or even to build one," said Rachel Wall, press secretary for the California High-Speed Rail Authority