|Photo by Slobodan Dimitrov|
California, the state with the largest smog problems and the most vehicles, is a national bellwether for air-quality control. So many observers were startled last month when the California Air Resources Board (ARB) suddenly reversed gears on its recent overwhelming commitment to the battery-powered car as the key to cleaner air.
Not that the board’s electric-car commitment last September hadn’t been equally startling. The state air-quality regulators were widely expected to push for fuel cells or similar new technology. Instead, they emerged with a three-year plan for cleaner emissions based on the cutting-edge technology of the century before last: battery power.
“We have to think not just of 2003, but also of protecting the state’s air quality far into the future,” said ARB Chairman Alan Lloyd in the official press release. Lloyd said then that the third-largest state could lose the battle against air pollution unless its car population moves toward zero emissions. And a mandate for up to 22,000 new battery-electric Zero Emission Vehicles — ZEVs — was the only way to do this, he said.
But for the preceding 10 years, most of the auto industry’s work on low- and no-emission vehicles has emphasized more up-to-date solutions, like compressed-natural-gas internal combustion, the impending fuel cell, and such currently available “hybrids” as the Toyota Prius: vehicles that, in speed, range and cost, can compete with gasoline-powered cars and trucks. These vehicles have generally found acceptance among environmentalists and consumers alike. The Prius was recently back-ordered for several weeks in Southern California.
Observers of the clean-air scene surmise that a late-blooming reality check may have turned the board around in December, when the Los Angeles Times reported a new plan that halved the battery-car requirement. “I think they may finally be caving in to the reality that there is no market for more than the 2 percent [proportion] of pure battery-powered cars,” said David Kirsch, a professor of management at UCLA’s Anderson School of Business. Some referred to the turnaround as “face-saving.”
Thanks mostly to California clean-air mandates dating back to 1990 (which originally decreed that there be 100,000 electrics on California roads by 2003) and subsequent compromises with manufacturers, there are now roughly 2,300 battery-run cars, trucks and vans on California roads. Many of these autos are in the fleets of various public agencies and utilities, while most of the others are leased to private individuals. The ARB in September planned to boost that number by 1,000 percent over the next three years, despite acknowledged “technological innovations” in “hybrid and fuel cell” vehicles. But the board unanimously voted at that time to recommit to battery power as “the gold standard” of low emissions, even as the ARB’s own engineers pointed out in their 160-page appendix that battery technology has been stalled for at least 10 years.
There were outside critics as well. One scholar, transportation curator Robert Casey of the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan, noted that “most of that [electric battery] technology was in place by WWI,” when urban elites began to replace the stately, silent electric coupes with refined internal-combustion cars such as the Pierce-Arrow and the Cadillac. Such petroleum-fueled cars could range across the nation, while electrics needed multiple hours on a battery charger after just three hours of use. They still do. In normal use, a 1909 Baker electric got 50 miles on a charge. A 1998 GM EV-1 gets about 70 miles. The September ARB mandate was for about 22,000 new electrics. Was there even that much demand for a car, double the cost of a comparable gas vehicle, that seats only two people, and can barely — without an hourslong charge break — manage a one-way trip from Manhattan to Poughkeepsie or Los Angeles to the Nixon Library?
Back in September, the ARB thought there was. Spokesman Richard Varenchik at that time cited the enthusiasm of those who’ve driven the 2,300 current California ZEV cars (mostly EV-1s). He also cited “a number” of ARB hearing attendees who said they’d buy ZEVs. Many complained of being put on corporate waiting lists.
But at the same time, the ARB’s own reports indicated that battery-car demand was slack even with the state’s most likely customer: Southern California Edison — California’s largest electric utility — had, in 10 years, managed to electrify just over 10 percent of its fleet.
Nonetheless, without even an order-of-magnitude demand estimate, the state board decided to move ahead. Many contend that there was another reason for this evangelical urgency. In trying to foment a demand for limited-capacity electric vehicles, the ARB, it was surmised, was also taking a stab at social engineering — trying to change the general pattern of car use.
Professor Kirsch, who authored the definitive book The Electric Vehicle and the Burden of History, believes the ARB promotes the electric car in part because its innate disadvantages would encourage fewer and shorter car trips, relieving traffic congestion as well as air pollution. In other words, if the ARB can’t make the electric car suit the needs of consumers, maybe it’s trying to do the reverse. Indeed, according to the September ARB report’s official summary, many who testified before the ARB argued that the current 100-mile-range battery-car goal was too much, and that people should learn to live with even less. “About 75 percent of the trips you make” are under 35 miles or so, Varenchik claims. As Kirsch describes the theory, if people planned their lives differently, they’d confine their daily travels to car-battery range. For a longer trip, they could rent something gaseous — something that wouldn’t put tons of pollutants into the air.