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EV owners interviewed by ABC News
ZEV drivers gather for ABC News interview at Los Angeles' Griffith Park. Most soon will be forced to turn in their cars as their leases terminate. Photos courtesy of Doug Korthof.

Where Are the ZEVs?

An open letter to the American Lung Association and the American people

By Kimberly Rogers

In 1990, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) did a remarkable thing. Recognizing that vehicles account for the vast majority of air pollution, and that millions of Californians live in areas where the air is unhealthy; CARB established the landmark Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV) Mandate - requiring 10% of California's vehicles to be ZEVs by 2003. At that time, the major auto makers were championing technology that could easily meet the ZEV requirement - battery electric vehicles (EVs).

So what happened? It's now 2003 and there are only a few thousand ZEVs on the road, and none are available to the public from the major auto makers. Only a few hundred were ever made available to the public - most were hidden away in fleets. Each EV built was immediately sold or leased. But the auto makers never did build sufficient quantities to satisfy demand, which meant long waiting lists for each EV. Now many of these EVs are permanently leaving California's roads because the auto makers (GM EV-1 and Honda EV+) will not renew the leases for these EVs, nor sell them "as is" (without warranty) to the current leasee.

Why are we losing ground? The auto industry has been successful in undermining the original ZEV requirements - through intense lobbying of CARB and filing lawsuits to stop the enforcement of the ZEV mandate. In 1996, 1998, 2000, 2001, and again this year (2003), the requirements have been watered down. Now the mandate is too weak to reduce air pollution. Remember, reducing air pollution was the reason for the ZEV mandate in the first place!

At the most recent CARB meeting in April 2003, the board approved amendments to drastically reduce the number of ZEVs to 250 by 2008. So we went from 10% ZEVs (or about 100,000 vehicles) in 2003, to only 250 by 2008! CARB approved this after two days of public hearings (March 2003), where the vast majority of the speakers called for CARB to reject those amendments. CARB did not even accept a modest proposal to increase the requirement to 500 ZEVs by 2008. (The stated reason for rejecting this was that it would place too much of a burden on the auto makers!)

Further dilution was created by allowing ZEVs that are fuel cell vehicles (FCV) to be deployed in any state that adopts California's rules (New York or Massachusetts) and still receive "credit" in California! It's still unbelievable to me that CARB (the "C" in CARB is supposed to stand for "California") grants credits for ZEVs deployed in other states.

The typical lifespan of a vehicle on the road is 10-20 years (and the emissions control systems become less effective as the vehicle ages). That's why it was so critically important to begin deploying ZEVs by 2003.

Today instead of ZEVs, nearly 50% of new vehicles sold are classified as trucks (SUVs), which have significantly weaker emissions requirements than passenger cars (also weaker safety and fuel economy standards). Most experts believe that FCVs will not be commercially viable for 10-20 years - there are significant issues with this new technology and infrastructure to support hydrogen refueling. The Natural Resources Defense Council predicts "it will be 20-30 years before enough FCVs might replace enough regular cars to make a dent in the U.S. oil demand".

We can't wait that long for FCVs to also make a dent in air pollution (assuming that the hydrogen to power FCVs is generated with renewable energy sources and not coal which is advocated by the federal government).

I believe that we need a variety of ZEVs and other cleaner vehicles on the road today (including EVs, hybrids, and compressed natural gas vehicles) while we wait for FCVs or other future technology. I'm frustrated by CARB's actions. They were supposed to represent the people of California and our fight against air pollution, acting as a counter balance to industry goals (profit at the expense of air quality). Now, thanks to the weak stance that CARB has taken, it will be decades before we turn the tide against air pollution.

Meanwhile, I'll continue to drive my EV, continue to lead by example and EVangelize clean vehicles for today (instead of technology promises for tomorrow). But I'm stumped for an answer to the question I get from hundreds of people who see my car and ask "Where can I get one, too?" Perhaps I should direct that question to CARB, "It's now 2003, where are the ZEVs you promised us?"

Times Article Viewed: 4505
Published: 07-Jun-2003

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