The biggest potential stumbling block for mainstream consumer acceptance of plug-in cars is likely to be cost. Generally speaking, electric cars and plug-in hybrids will cost thousands of dollars more than similar conventional vehicles. That’s why the federal government is offering a $7,500 tax credit, and states like California are offering a $5,000 rebate for the most robust electric cars. Governments pony up the money in order to promote low emissions and greater efficiency.
Unfortunately, the Chevy Volt—one of the star plug-in cars—will not receive the coveted $5,000 California rebate because the vehicle does not qualify as an Advanced Technology-Partial Zero Emissions Vehicle (AT-PZEV). A number of conventional hybrids, like the Toyota Prius and Honda Civic Hybrid, have qualified as AT-PZEVs for years. The Nissan LEAF is a pure zero-missions vehicle, and will therefore be designated as a ZEV.
The lack of a $5,000 rebate will put the Volt at a cost disadvantage compared to the Nissan LEAF, which will indeed qualify for the $5,000 California rebate. The net result could mean that the Chevy Volt has a net price $10,000 or more than the LEAF.
Other plug-in hybrids could face the same hurdle in getting qualified as AT-PZEVs by the California Air Resources Board (CARB). As a result, the conventional Toyota Prius ironically might be designated as an AT-PZEV, but not the plug-in version due out in 2012.
I plan to speak with CARB officials as soon as possible, but for now, I’ll speculate about the two reasons why the Chevy Volt fails the CARB requirements.
How Could This Be? Two Possible Reasons
This week, G.M. announced that the warranty all of the Volt’s electric-drive and battery components for 8 years or 100,000 miles. However, CARB requires that the emissions equipment of AT-PZEVs have a warranty of 10 years or 150,000 miles. If the Volt’s battery pack, for example, is considered part of the emissions control system, then G.M. would need to warranty the pack for 10 years or 150,000 miles, which apparently the company is not willing to do. That’s probably the right business decision. The legal and financial responsibility would be steep to ensure that the Volt’s expensive 16-kilowatt hour lithium ion battery pack will be fully functioning—or replaced/repaired if it isn’t—all the way to 2020. That would show an unreasonable amount of risk, confidence and guts. So, the Volt in essence does not meet CARB’s durability requirement.
The second reason relates to the use of catalytic converters to ensure emissions are always low. Through the use of catalysts, emissions for gas-powered cars (including conventional hybrids) can be routinely controlled to be extremely low. In a pure gas car, the engine comes on, the catalyst is warmed up, and the emissions are kept to minimum. In a conventional hybrid, the engine comes on routinely enough to ensure the catalyst is warm and functioning. But what if the engine stays off and is cold for long periods of time, and is then called into service—maybe once or maybe multiple times during the vehicle’s drive cycle? The emissions could therefore be harder to control.
A Challenge to Plug-in Hybrids
From a fundamental technical perspective, the Volt is not a pure zero-emissions electric car because it has a gas engine. Even if most trips are less than 40 miles and therefore purely electric, CARB has to know that the emissions from the gas engine—when it eventually comes on—can meet state guidelines for air quality. For other plug-in hybrids, like the Prius Plug-in Hybrid, Fisker Karma, or Ford Escape Plug-in Hybrid—all of which are likely to call upon the gas engine much more frequently than the Chevy Volt—the issue is even more critical. (Theoretically, at some point in the future, G.M. engineers could also decide to improve overall efficiency by using gas power in various stages of the drive cycle.) So, the Volt gets a second strike for not having an absolute fail-safe emissions system.
I’m just making an educated guess about what CARB is thinking. I’m not agreeing with the decision. At this point, we don’t know if these reasons are accurate and valid—or if the Volt simply got caught up in some technocratic web. The reasons matter less than the hard reality that the 2011 Volt has lost its $5,000 California rebate, which many hopeful plug-in buyers expected to be there.