Chu mum on his future, but chatty on electric cars

Chu was on hand at the auto show to announce a program aimed at increasing the number of U.S. companies that offer car-charging infrastructure over the next five years.

Ford, Google, Verizon and 10 other firms are participating in the Workplace Charging Initiative.

For now, electric vehicles comprise a very small — but growing — part of the market.

Obama has been bullish on the technology, predicting 1 million such cars would be on U.S. roads by 2015.

Asked whether that was still attainable, Chu said, “It’s ambitious, but we’ll see what happens.”

Chu said he is optimistic because electric vehicles are already becoming less expensive, thanks in part to wider adoption and better battery technology. He said the federal government might not need to subsidize electric car purchases through tax incentives for much longer.

"We can get to $20,000 (per car) with no subsidies by 2022. This would be very exciting. When you get close to that — even when you get to $25,000 — the market will speak for itself," Chu said. 

Chu would not speculate on whether the Energy Department (DOE) would disburse more loans from the Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing (ATVM) program to accelerate electric vehicle production.

DOE has used about $8.5 billion of the $25 billion set aside for the ATVM program, which was established when Congress passed the Troubled Asset Relief Program in 2008.

“That remains to be seen. We’re always looking for great ideas that come forward,” Chu said of the loan program.

Chu said he would be “a little surprised” if that 80 percent of the world’s new car fleet weren’t made up of “mild hybrid” vehicles five to 10 years from now — those with both a battery and internal combustion engine.