If this was the ARB’s tacit agenda, it apparently ran aground in a maelstrom of industry opposition. Varenchik noted that since September, “The auto industry has made a strong case for other technologies to the board.” For that, read a frenzy of discreet lobbying. Detroit’s representatives contended, in agreement with some of the board’s own staffers, that emerging low-pollution propulsion methods like fuel cells, gas-electric hybrids and natural-gas internal combustion would cost far less and offer consumers far more range. Ultimately, hydrogen as an auto fuel could provide pure zero-emission performance without the reliance on battery power. The industry people also claimed that manufacturers would lose hundreds of millions if forced to build tens of thousands of electric cars for which there was no foreseeable demand. (The street cost of the electric cars mandated in September would have been more than $770 million.)
This demand shortage for short-legged cars will probably increase, due to the realities of California’s sprawling residential growth. The demographics of the San Diego, Los Angeles and Bay Area housing hinterlands already militate against the idea of a 60-mile-maximum daily drive. Tens of thousands of wage earners in these regions already commute well out of battery-ZEV range, to homes east of Sacramento and San Bernardino. And even if 75 percent of one’s driving is piddling around town, it’s the individual freedom of the remaining 25 percent that many drivers live for.
As regional historians such as Rayner Banham point out, California’s modern society was built on the principle of Freedom of the Car: the Highway to Heaven. This freedom includes the right to take a day off on impulse, then drive across the desert, into the mountains, halfway up the coast, or down to Mexico for an afternoon in Ensenada. It’s a freedom cherished by much of America’s automotive population, for whom driving a short-legged electric, however peppy, might seem more a penance than a privilege.
Because, as even the ARB concedes, an average ZEV costs $22,000 more (mostly for the battery) than a comparable gas vehicle. (A Prius costs about the same as a comparable gas car.) Although most ZEVs on the road today are leased, the real cost is heavily subsidized. Government and manufacturers pay that subsidy, which comes out of our tax bills or off the sticker price of conventional vehicles.
Even some environmentalists, apparently understanding that here the best is the enemy of the good, are backing away from the battery-car solution. For instance, Earth Day chairman Denis Hayes’ Official Earth Day Guide to Planet Repair listed 25 environmental “best cars,” none of them battery-powered. Other environmentalists, however, also credit the 10-year air-board pressure to mass-produce battery cars as having moved the auto industry toward producing clean cars via other technologies. The Times quoted Sierra Club lobbyist V. John White as claiming that the ARB’s programs “have been forcing automakers to produce more and more cars that have less environmental impact.”
The change of policy, however, won’t become official until the board, whose commissioners are each paid $35,000 per year, meets again at the end of January. Some industry representatives still fear the air board might recant when it meets again, and re-establish the battery-centered clean-air policy.
Dean Case, who works on low-emission vehicles for Nissan North America, concedes that the motor industry has a spotty record when it comes to promoting low-emission vehicles. But he termed the original ARB plan “an economic disaster.”
“For the Second Law of Thermodynamics,” he said, “they’ve substituted the First Law of Disneyland: ‘Wish it to be true.’”