California Pulls Plug on ‘Clean Air’ Cars

Published June 1, 2003

The electric battery-powered vehicle was billed as “the car of the future” in 2001 by California regulators. Two years later, the state’s attempt to legislate into existence a fleet of electric “clean air” cars has been relegated to the history books.

“California tried to force us to build something that wasn’t market ready, and it looks like they have finally realized that fact,” said Greg Dana, vice president of environmental affairs for the Washington, DC-based Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers.

Realizing legislation cannot by itself alter consumer behavior or the current scientific landscape, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) voted 8-3 on April 24 to soften its “zero pollution” mandate, rescinding its requirement that 10 percent of cars sold in the state be pollution-free.

CARB’s decision slams the door on a Zero Emissions Vehicle program launched in 1990. At the time, CARB mandated that zero-emission vehicles comprise at least 2 percent of new car sales by 1998, at least 5 percent by 2001, and at least 10 percent by 2003.

In 1996, CARB responded to slow consumer acceptance of zero-emission vehicles by eliminating the 1998 and 2001 requirements, but it held fast to the 2003 requirement. Now, it has abandoned zero-emission vehicles entirely in favor of low-emission hybrid vehicles.

Electric Cars a Failure

Although CARB originally projected its mandate could be met with electric battery-powered vehicles costing just $1,350 more than gasoline-fueled vehicles of similar size, consultants hired by the agency concluded electric vehicles would cost about $20,000 more than gasoline-powered cars. “A handful of wealthy individuals wishing to make a highly visible statement about their concern for the environment may be willing to pay a premium for an electric vehicle,” wrote Tom Austin, a former CARB official, in December 2000, “but most people won’t be interested unless electric vehicles are cheaper than gasoline vehicles.”

Despite CARB mandates and extensive public relations campaigns, California consumers refused to pay top dollar for a low-performance vehicle. As a result, reported Jocelyn Parker of the Detroit Free Press, “Many automakers, including General Motors Corp. and Honda Motor Co., have largely abandoned electric cars because of their limited range and high costs.”

Paul Rogers of the San Jose Mercury News reported in April Toyota has dropped its electric RAV-4 “after selling only 1,200 vehicles since 1998. The RAV-4 cost $42,000 and could go only 80 to 120 miles before needing to be plugged in for up to six hours.”

Realizing it could not force automakers to sell cars nobody would buy, CARB has switched gears, now hoping it can pressure automakers to build, and consumers to buy, hybrid gas-electric vehicles that to date have been only slightly more popular than the failed battery cars. CARB also has enacted long-term mandates for the sale of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles.

“Midcourse Correction” or Retreat?

“I think this is a midcourse correction,” said lobbyist John White of the Sierra Club. “We’re trying to make sure it doesn’t turn into a full-scale retreat.”

Other environmental activist groups were not so moderate in their response, harshly criticizing CARB for abandoning its efforts to force consumers into battery-powered vehicles. “We are now worshipping at the altar of the craven image of the fuel cell,” said California Power Authority Chairman David Freeman.

CARB itself directed criticism at consumers and industry. “It’s hard to make rules and enforce regulations when everybody industrywide has a problem with them and feels that they can spend better,” said CARB spokesman Jerry Martin.

Missing the Point

CARB’s decision was motivated in part by a RAND Corporation study concluding the state would make more progress toward clean air goals by encouraging a large number of low-pollution vehicles rather than a small number of zero-pollution vehicles. In accordance with that new strategy, CARB adopted the following new mandates:

  • 22,000 hybrid vehicles on California roads by 2005; 33,000 by 2006; 56,000 by 2007; and 83,000 by 2008.
  • 250 hydrogen fuel cell vehicles on California roads by 2008.
  • 117,500 hybrid vehicles on California roads by 2009.
  • 2 million low-emission gas vehicles on California roads by 2009, and 3.4 million low-emission gas vehicles by 2012.

Although hybrid vehicles are currently technologically feasible–though still wanting in terms of price and performance–hydrogen fuel cells are a different matter altogether.

“It’s still not a slam dunk for automakers to do,” said Kathy Graham, spokesperson for DaimlerChrysler.

Graham’s sentiments were supported by a March 5 Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) study concluding hydrogen fuel cell automobiles will not be commercially feasible for another 30 to 50 years.

“The hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle has low emissions and energy use on the road–but converting a hydrocarbon fuel such as natural gas or gasoline into hydrogen to fuel this vehicle uses substantial energy and emits greenhouse gases,” said the MIT study. Other obstacles include building the necessary infrastructure for servicing vehicles and finding a way to keep hydrogen from exploding (remember the Hindenburg) in automobile accidents.

“You would think they would have learned their lesson by now,” said Jerry Taylor, director of natural resource studies at the Cato Institute. “You can’t legislate scientific advances, and you can’t legislate consumer preferences. How many taxpayer dollars must the state waste before it gets the point?”

James M. Taylor is managing editor of Environment & Climate News. His email address is [email protected].