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.

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.’”

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