Hall of mirrors in the electric-car race

A dramatic sign of the anxiety accompanying the global electric-car race came just after New Year’s, when Renault announced that it was firing three senior executives on suspicion of selling out the French automaker. The suggested paymaster: the dastardly Chinese, who had allegedly enriched Swiss bank accounts for the trio in exchange for Renault’s top-secret ...

Miguel Medina AFP/Getty Images
Miguel Medina AFP/Getty Images
Miguel Medina AFP/Getty Images

A dramatic sign of the anxiety accompanying the global electric-car race came just after New Year's, when Renault announced that it was firing three senior executives on suspicion of selling out the French automaker. The suggested paymaster: the dastardly Chinese, who had allegedly enriched Swiss bank accounts for the trio in exchange for Renault's top-secret electric-car plans (the company's Kangoo Express Z.E. is pictured above). Today, in a dramatic sign of the paranoia that also surrounds the electric-car competition, it turns out that the three may be innocent.

In a scoop, the Financial Times' Peggy Hollinger interviewed Michel Balthazard, the 56-year-old head of development for Renault who became the center of the alleged plot last August when an anonymous tipster described him "negotiating a bribe." The allegation was that the bribe was for plans to which he was privy for Renault's electric cars. Given the stakes, Balthazard said he isn't surprised that Renault investigated -- "If I was them I would have done the same thing" -- but that the company crossed the line by punishing him and his colleagues on what may turn out to be a big mistake. "I got in my car and went home ... completely destroyed," he said.

The apparent fiasco may cost Renault CEO Patrick Pelata his job. It may in fact be what the Wall Street Journal describes as "the work of the Keystone Kops." Yet the incident is also a window into the highly tense atmosphere in which companies from some 15 countries are racing to dominate hybrid and electric cars. For the CEOs of the world's biggest car companies, this is the new, new thing. For the countries in which they are located, hybrids and electric vehicles are thought to be a possible new path toward national wealth. All are worried that someone -- primarily the Chinese -- are going to steal a march on them.

A dramatic sign of the anxiety accompanying the global electric-car race came just after New Year’s, when Renault announced that it was firing three senior executives on suspicion of selling out the French automaker. The suggested paymaster: the dastardly Chinese, who had allegedly enriched Swiss bank accounts for the trio in exchange for Renault’s top-secret electric-car plans (the company’s Kangoo Express Z.E. is pictured above). Today, in a dramatic sign of the paranoia that also surrounds the electric-car competition, it turns out that the three may be innocent.

In a scoop, the Financial TimesPeggy Hollinger interviewed Michel Balthazard, the 56-year-old head of development for Renault who became the center of the alleged plot last August when an anonymous tipster described him "negotiating a bribe." The allegation was that the bribe was for plans to which he was privy for Renault’s electric cars. Given the stakes, Balthazard said he isn’t surprised that Renault investigated — "If I was them I would have done the same thing" — but that the company crossed the line by punishing him and his colleagues on what may turn out to be a big mistake. "I got in my car and went home … completely destroyed," he said.

The apparent fiasco may cost Renault CEO Patrick Pelata his job. It may in fact be what the Wall Street Journal describes as "the work of the Keystone Kops." Yet the incident is also a window into the highly tense atmosphere in which companies from some 15 countries are racing to dominate hybrid and electric cars. For the CEOs of the world’s biggest car companies, this is the new, new thing. For the countries in which they are located, hybrids and electric vehicles are thought to be a possible new path toward national wealth. All are worried that someone — primarily the Chinese — are going to steal a march on them.

President Barack Obama is among those who see the race in those terms. In doing so, he has been subject to some scorn. The Washington Post‘s Charles Lane calls the multi-billion-dollar grant program for the industry "the biggest taxpayer rip-off since corn-based ethanol." The American Thinker calls it part of Obama’s "edifice complex." Yet, Obama may also be right.

One suspects that this will not be the last embarrassing moment in the electric-car race. As the anonymous tipster himself or herself put it, "Of course I have no proof … but if this is all wrong then I’m paranoid."

<p> Steve LeVine is a contributing editor at Foreign Policy, a Schwartz Fellow at the New America Foundation, and author of The Oil and the Glory. </p>

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