Automakers Lose Latest Game of Chicken with CARB’s Zero Emission Rules

By · October 25, 2013

A casual reading of yesterday’s announcement that top leaders in eight states are fully supporting electric cars sounds like a non-story. I mean, how many times do we have to hear broad promises about more EV infrastructure? But there’s more here than meets the eye. Yesterday’s announcement from California and seven other states was designed very deliberately to send a message to automakers: “We ain’t backing down.”

The timing of yesterday’s announcement was not coincidental. The California Air Resources Board yesterday had a rare public hearing to review “minor modifications” to the zero emission vehicle (ZEV) mandates—that require 15 percent of vehicle sold in the state to be electric cars or hydrogen fuel cell vehicles by 2025.

The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers makes its case that states in the northeast have too steep a hill to climb.

Governors yesterday agreed to pursue a range of efforts to support electric cars, many of which have proven successful in California: strong financial incentives; harmonizing building codes for charging stations; buying EVs for public fleets; special EV electricity rates; and better standards for charging networks.

The Alliance of Automobile Manufactures, which includes 12 automakers—most notably Detroit’s Big Three and major German carmakers—submitted a letter to CARB (PDF) prior to the meeting. The main gist was to argue that ZEV rules need to be revisited, because sales of electric cars and plug-in hybrids, while selling okay in California, are way behind target levels in the seven other states the follow the Golden State’s strict emissions rules: Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island and Vermont.

In its letter to CARB, the Alliance, supported by graphs, argues that those other states—unlike groovy EV-loving California—will never be able to sell required levels of electric cars under the California rules. So let’s go back to the drawing board, and figure out how we can modify/weaken the standards.

The Alliance uses historical hybrid sales numbers to show that new technologies have never been adopted in northeast states.

Actually, California—with its plug-in incentives and more developed EV infrastructure—is not only meeting current ZEV timelines, but beating them this year by about 30 percent. The eight states, with yesterday’s announcement (regardless of how important or not you believe public charging infrastructure to be) are saying that they are going to take the successful measures that have produced successful results in California, and port them to the other states.

In other words, automakers that have been most critical about ZEV just had their bluff called. Moreover, CARB continues to promote its grand vision that by 2040, every single passenger vehicle in California will be zero emissions, and that be 2050, every car on the road with either be a pure EV or a hydrogen fuel cell car. That might sound crazy, but it probably shouldn’t be taken literally—but rather as an emphatic message that the auto industry should move in a decisive direction of vehicle electrification and stop its futile fight.

“The automakers say to weaken the mandate because it’s not working, but states are saying that automakers should try harder,” Roland Hwang, transportation director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, told me this morning. “The ball is in your court, auto companies. But realize that we have our political and policy shoulders to the wheel.”

The key, according to Hwang, is that the auto industry is no longer moving in unified lock step to fight EVs and plug-in hybrids. The technology is here, the market is growing (with the right kind of support), and the political tide has turned to support these technologies that can improve air quality and mitigate global warming.

It’s fascinating and instructive to read comments submitted this week to CARB by Nissan, Toyota, BMW and Tesla—easy to find in pdf form on the agency's website. (Tesla is mostly interested in keeping its ability to earn ZEV credits for demonstrating the capacity to do battery swapping, even without concrete plans to make it a reality.)

We might not know for sure for a few weeks, but appears that automakers have lost this latest game of chicken.

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