California Still Dreaming

Published December 1, 2000

Ten years ago this month, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) adopted a regulation requiring 10 percent of new cars and light trucks produced for sale in 2003 to have zero emissions. CARB projected that its Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV) mandate could be met with electric vehicles costing only $1,350 more than gasoline-fueled vehicles of similar size.

Unfortunately, the hoped-for improvements in battery technology have not occurred. Consultants hand-picked by CARB to analyze electric vehicle costs, including researchers at the University of California’s Institute for Transportation Studies, have concluded that electric vehicles are going to cost about $20,000 more than comparably sized gasoline vehicles. Because of their limited driving range, electric vehicles are also expected to have substantially less value to the average motorist.

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, but most people won’t be interested unless electric vehicles are cheaper than gasoline vehicles. As a result, a subsidy of approximately $30,000 per vehicle is likely to be required to induce 10 percent of new car buyers to choose an electric vehicle.

Barring a raid on the state’s General Fund, the subsidy required to sell electric vehicles will necessarily come from a surcharge on the price of new gasoline vehicles. The price of each new gasoline vehicle will need to be increased by about $3,000 to cover the $30,000 subsidy needed to induce 10 percent of new car buyers to choose an electric vehicle.

Under a recent change in the regulation, the minimum percentage of electric vehicles could drop to 4 percent if automakers are able to bring gasoline vehicle emissions even closer to zero and provide 150,000-mile warranties on their emission-control systems. At a 4 percent electric vehicle production volume, the $30,000 subsidy for each electric vehicle could be funded with a surcharge on gasoline vehicles of only $1,250. However, gasoline vehicle prices would also rise by at least several hundred more dollars to cover the extra cost of additional pollution controls and a longer warranty.

The only option for automakers to further reduce the cost of complying with the ZEV mandate is for them to produce electric vehicles that are little more than glorified golf carts. The gasoline vehicle travel displaced by such vehicles would be negligible and CARB’s regulation would become a laughingstock, but this approach could reduce the required surcharge on gasoline vehicles to about $1,000.

Yet despite these enormous costs, CARB’s own analysis indicates that electric vehicles will have no measurable effect on air quality. CARB claims electric vehicles are much cleaner, but advances in emissions-control technology have been dramatic over the last decade, and new gasoline cars are getting very close to zero emissions. Yes, the power plant emissions associated with electric vehicle recharging are lower than the emissions of gasoline vehicles, but the difference is of no practical significance.

To put things in perspective, CARB’s own calculations indicate that the electric vehicle mandate will contribute only one-tenth of one percent (that’s one part in a thousand) of the emissions reductions necessary to achieve the 2010 deadline for meeting the ozone air-quality standard in Southern California mandated by the Clean Air Act.

However, even this minuscule projected benefit is an illusion because it ignores the effect that higher vehicle prices will have on new car sales. The theoretical advantage electric vehicles offer over advanced gasoline vehicles is so small that even slightly reducing new car sales through higher prices will cause older vehicles to stay on the road longer, resulting in a net increase in emissions.

Nor will electric vehicles deliver other claimed benefits, such as reduced global warming. Global warming is primarily associated with carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuel. Many assume electric vehicles will help reduce carbon dioxide output because they don’t use fossil fuel.

But they do use fossil fuel, and lots of it. Although electricity can be produced from non-fossil sources, such as hydropower and wind, 100 percent of the available non-fossil electricity is already being used. Additional electricity demand to power vehicles is likely to be met by power plants burning fossil fuels (natural gas, oil, and coal). The amount of fuel that must be burned to create the electricity needed to recharge an electric vehicle is comparable to the fuel burned by a gasoline vehicle.

Claims that electric vehicles are as efficient as gasoline vehicles getting over 100 miles per gallon are based on simplistic analyses that account only for the power the battery charger takes from the wall outlet. Such claims ignore the energy required to produce the electricity at a fossil- fuel-fired power plant and deliver it to the wall outlet. Detailed energy use analyses I have conducted indicate that there is no significant difference between the energy efficiency of electric vehicles and modern gasoline vehicles.

Claims that electric vehicles will reduce urban noise pollution are also unfounded. Urban noise pollution is primarily caused by heavy trucks, buses, and motorcycles with illegally modified exhaust systems. The noise associated with the internal combustion engines in passenger cars and light trucks is not the primary problem. Noise from cars and light trucks is a factor, but it’s mostly tire noise, which electric vehicles also produce.

So why does CARB appear to be going full speed ahead with the mandate? Obviously, the agency doesn’t want to admit that it was wrong 10 years ago when it concluded that electric vehicles would be cost-effective. But there is more to it than that.

To environmental organizations, and perhaps the general public, electric cars are the Holy Grail; they represent not only a pollution-free means of transportation but a way to break the dependence of our transportation system on oil. CARB has never received more support for a regulatory measure than it has received for the ZEV mandate. As long as so many Californians remain starry eyed about a vehicle few of them wish to buy, retaining the ZEV mandate creates the appearance that CARB is doing the right thing. In contrast, backing away from the mandate would create the appearance that CARB is caving in to the automotive industry.

A public hearing to consider changes in the ZEV mandate is currently scheduled for January of next year. Because of the lead time required to purchase and install the tooling needed to build battery-powered cars, it will be the last opportunity to save Californians from $1 billion to $3 billion in annual costs that will provide no measurable change in air quality.

The ultimate fate of the regulation will depend on the price CARB and the Davis administration are willing to have the rest of us pay for a purely symbolic action with no real air-quality benefit. While it may seem politically expedient to leave the mandate in place now, the outrageous costs will become evident soon enough. Unless the mandate is substantially scaled back, there will be a lot of unhappy new car shoppers and new car dealers come the fall of 2002.

Tom Austin, an automotive engineer and formerly executive officer of the California Air Resources Board, is a senior partner at Sierra Research Inc., which does air pollution control studies for public environmental agencies and the auto and oil industries.

For more information

on California’s ZEV mandate and other auto emission-related issues, see Sierra Research Inc.’s Web site at