The automobile itself benefited from early adoption by wealthy buyers. The first successful gasoline-based internal combustion engine was introduced in Germany in 1885 and over the next two decades, engines and other parts of the vehicle steadily improved. Yet it wasn't until Henry Ford introduced his Model T in 1908 that modern automobile became accessible to mere mortals. Ford (F) introduced a host of innovations -- most notably the assembly line -- that made the Model T accessible to the masses. But he was only able to do that because he could build on innovations that had been driven by smaller, upscale markets for more than 20 years.
The government, of course, didn't give rich people tax credits for buying early-model cellphones or nineteenth-century cars. And electric vehicles might eventually compete without government help. But just as Washington spends money on the military to protect the country from potential dangers in the Middle East, it makes sense for it to invest in accelerating new technology that could make the U.S. less dependent on the volatile region for oil. Despite record gains in U.S. oil production, we're still part of a global market; when things go haywire in Saudi Arabia, our economy suffers from skyrocketing oil bills. The only way to escape that danger is to use less oil in our cars and trucks even as we produce more crude at home.
Using government to create an early market increases the odds that electric cars will help us do that. It helped the natural gas industry. During the 2000s, skyrocketing prices for natural gas created a big incentive for drillers to experiment with horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing (or "fracking") to extract natural gas from shale. Drillers were supported by tax credits that allowed them to quickly write off the costs of tackling risky wells. Over the course of the decade, that cushion let them improve their technology, bringing down costs and raising . By the time natural gas prices crashed in 2008, fracking had become so cheap that it persisted nevertheless.
While it would be great if anyone could have a shot at owning one now, the reality is that making electric cars available to everyone today would be ruinously expensive. I'm just as envious of the guy who gets to drive a Tesla Model S as the next person. But if that's what it will take to get some breakthroughs that ultimately make the next generation of cars available to the masses -- and help slash American dependence on oil -- it's a price we should be willing to pay.
Michael Levi is the author of The Power Surge: Energy, Opportunity, and the Battle for America's Future. He is a senior fellow and director of the energy security and climate change program at the Council on Foreign Relations.