Passion May Save California's EVs
By Bill Moore
Having listened to literally hours of testimony before California's Air Resources Board on Thursday and Friday -- via the Internet -- one very clear message stands out.
Passion and conviction can make a difference.
On March 27th and 28th, the Air Resources Board met in Sacramento to hear pubic comment and testimony about proposed revisions to California's Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV) mandate, first enacted in 1991 and subsequently revised over the course of the last twelve years as technology and car maker resistance compelled the board to adapt increasingly conservative goals.
This week's public hearing, which featured -- by ARB's count --some 78 witnesses, convened to decide on whether the mandate should offer car makers a technology pathway that focused primarily on fuel cell technology or a revised version of the 2001 regulations, which still includes a modest 2% ZEV requirement. The remaining 8% was to be made up with a combination of various types of advanced, near-zero emission vehicles, most of them still heavily reliant on fossil fuels.
Prior to and even after part of the first day's testimony was in, the Associated Press was still reporting that the Board was going to abandon electric cars in favor of fuel cells, a conclusion which proved that the AP reporter wasn't really paying attention or left the hearings too early.
In fact, despite earlier reports in a half dozen newspapers to the contrary, ARB chairman Dr. Alan Lloyd made it very clear from outset that the Board had no intention of dropping the ZEV mandate. (EV World reported this as well in our interview with Richard Varenchik). He insisted that the board was simply trying to establish an achievable zero emission technology pathway that would result in more than just a handful of demonstration vehicles. Ironically, that is what the fuel cell option proposed by ARB's staff appeared to offer when it would let carmakers build a total of 250 fuel cell vehicles by 2008. A number of witnesses pointed out this apparent incongruity.
What became obvious from the beginning of the meeting was that few people, with the possible exception of Honda, Toyota and Ford -- the only car companies who offered testimony -- favored the fuel cell proposal. One early witness complained that ARB was on the "one yard line" in terms of proven battery electric vehicle technology and seemed prepared to "punt" in favor of an unproven fuel cell technology.
From the testimony of ARB's staff it was obvious that they felt that the way to get to true zero emission vehicles -- including affordable, practical BEVs was by encouraging carmakers to build hybrid vehicles. Supported by testimony from Dr. Menachem Anderman, who served as a consultant to the board, Staff apparently believes that promoting the growth of hybrid-electric vehicles with increasing zero emission range (referred to as plug-in or grid-connected hybrids) will do more to lower the cost of batteries than by pushing automakers to build BEVs.
Dr. Anderman observed during his testimony that while battery development for pure BEVs has essentially stalled, work on hybrid EV batteries is progressing rapidly. He noted that there is only a slight difference between the two types of batteries and that as hybrid battery production scales up, it will greatly improve the commercial viability of pure electric vehicles, where the real hold-up is the cost and reliability of the battery packs.
Not everyone agreed with this assessment, however. Ed Kjaer with Southern California Edison argued that SCE's fleet of battery electric vehicles -- they have the largest such fleet in the world -- demonstrates that pure electric vehicle battery technology is reliable. The electric utility has Toyota RAV4 EVs that now have more than 100,000 miles on the original NiMH battery packs.
In fact, witness after witness -- many of whom are or were until recently -- BEV lessees, passionately pleaded with the board to not eliminate BEVs from the mandate. Even several board members themselves told Dr. Lloyd that they didn't want to see BEVs dropped.
So, hour after hour, until late in the night of the 27th and again on the morning of the 28th, environmental groups, the Union of Concerned Scientists, EV-driver coalitions members, and private citizens took their three-minutes in the limelight to repeat essentially the same message: BEVs work and they should be kept as a integral part of the revised mandate, regardless of which path carmakers chose to follow.
It was Dr. Burke, one of the board members who observed that of the 78 witnesses signed up to offer testimony, only 4 supported the Staff's proposal, 22 considered themselves neutral to it, and 52 opposed it including entire counties in California who are wrestling with some of the worse air pollution in the nation, especially in the Central Valley.
What was also obvious was the total lack of opposition to the mandate. During the time EV World monitored the proceedings, which was something like about 6-7 hours, not a single witness stood up and urged the board to drop the mandate. There were no impassioned pleas to think of the poor in California's inner cities, or protestations about the mandate favoring the wealthy, all arguments used by carmaker-funded lobbyists in previous debates.
Instead, several witnesses pointed out that the world has changed since 1990 when the mandate was first proposed. If the mandate seemed preposterous in 1991, in 2003 with America at war, it now seems prescient. Electric cars, they pointed out, don't use imported oil.
Amidst the debates over pathways and gold, silver and bronze standards, what also became clear is that several ARB members are more than intrigued with the concept of plug-in hybrids, so much so that they pretty much insisted that ARB's staff do everything they could to encourage, through incentives within the mandate's credit system, carmakers to take the concept seriously. While carmakers have been less than enthusiastic about hybrids that derive 20-60 miles of range from their battery packs -- for both technical and cost reasons -- Toyota's Dave Hermance acknowledged at the conclusion of his testimony on the first day that given enough incentive carmakers might be willing to offer the market such a vehicle.
The publication of a report by EPRI just one day prior to ARB's meeting indicating that battery electric vehicles are rapidly approaching cost competitiveness with conventional IC engine vehicles also played a role in the Board's final decision to have Staff revise their proposal to include provisions for battery electric vehicles on both the 2001 regulation pathway and on the proposed 250 fuel cell vehicle pathway.
It now appears carmakers are either going to have to resume building battery electric vehicles -- which we suspect is highly unlikely -- or buy credits from third party-BEV manufacturers like the new Swiss owners of the Th!nk city car. Staff has been given 15 days to come up with their proposed revisions, which will apparently now include a credit system for NEVs, city and full-function BEVs as part of the fuel cell option.
So, it now appears that battery electric cars may have been given a new lease or re-lease on life in California. The consensus of the Board came across loud and clear to EV World that they have every intention to compel carmakers to offer drivers in California their choice of clear vehicles from low-pollution gasoline cars by Honda and others to no-pollution cars running on American-made electricity.
How carmakers will react is not yet known, but based on their previous track record, EV World assumes Detroit will continue to fight any mandate, though by doing so, they run the risk of alienating a growing chorus of Americans, as well as the international community, who see the war in Iraq as being about oil, oil battery electric cars don't need.
One final observation and suggestion to ARB, national policy makers, the auto companies and battery manufacturers. From the testimony offered, it is apparent that one of the biggest hold-ups to BEV technology is the unwillingness of battery makers to warrant their batteries for the life of the vehicle, as much as 15 years. This is understandable since most of this technology hasn't been in existence for that long.
What EV World would like to suggest is the creation of the equivalent of a government loan guarantee or insurance program that underwrites the replacement cost of batteries beyond an initial product warranty period. The program would guarantee that US battery manufacturers -- foreign manufacturers could have their own governments offer a similar program -- would be insured for any product failure after an initial warranty period of say 8 years or 100,000 miles. The federal government already offers similar types of programs. As technology improves and we learn more about the longevity of advanced batteries, the program could gradually sunset. The idea would be to remove a major financial risk impediment to both the development of hybrid, fuel cell and battery electric vehicle technology.
If you don't think your voice counts anymore, you have but to look to the impassioned voices of EV drivers in California... and those who want to be. One witness pointed out that ARB had received 10,000 letters, emails and telephone calls supporting the ZEV mandate and electric cars. That's a volume of voices that is hard to ignore.
That bodes well for California, America and the world.
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