With gas prices plunging, clean air proponents are watching as sales of battery-based vehicles take a nosedive. But don’t tell that to Mary Nichols, the director of the powerful California Air Resources Board. Whether through financial incentives or fiat, Nichols expects to see nearly 100% of the cars sold in the Golden State by 2030 powered by batteries, hydrogen or some other clean source of energy.
California’s Zero-Emissions Vehicle, or ZEV, mandate, has already shaken up the automotive industry. This year, it sets a goal of having 2.7% of the vehicles sold in the state run on alternative power – just like the battery-powered Honda Fit Nichols herself drives.
“If we’re going to get our transportation system off petroleum,” Nichols said in an interview with Bloomberg news service, “we’ve got to get people used to a zero-emissions world, not just a little-bit-better version of the world they have now.”
Due to its endemic smog problems, California was long ago granted authority to set its own automotive emissions standards and routinely exceeds the federal guidelines on traditional pollutants such as smog-causing ozone and oxides of nitrogen. In recent years, the Air Resources Board, or CARB, has also begun mandating the introduction of Zero-Emissions Vehicles, such as the Nissan Leaf and Tesla Model S.
Despite affecting a relatively small number of vehicles, the ZEV mandate has been a major headache for automakers such as Fiat Chrysler who have to come up with vehicles that qualify. A year ago, CEO Sergio Marchionne pointed to the then-new Fiat 500e battery-car and told an audience in Washington, “I hope you don’t buy it.” The maker was expecting to lose about $14,000 for each one it sold.
The industry has flooded California with so-called “compliance cars,” vehicles that, cynics charge, were developed only to meet the mandate, even if that meant they’d lose money. A number of battery-cars are, in fact, available only in the Golden State – or the handful of other states that have copied the ZEV rules.
California alone isn’t driving the development of electric and hydrogen vehicles. Automakers also have to find ways to meet upcoming increases in the federal Corporate Average Fuel Economy standard that will jump to 54.5 mpg by 2025. And Europe has set its own challenging carbon dioxide standards that will be tough for manufacturers to meet without much more extensive use of electrified drivetrains, whether hybrid, plug-ins or full battery-electric vehicles.
(Makers still focusing on lighter materials to meet tough CAFE standards. For more, Click Here.)
But as the recent slide in battery-car sales has shown, it’s tough to get consumers to change their ways, especially when fuel is cheap, even with lucrative state and federal incentives.
Exactly how the industry will pick up the pace of change is far from certain but, if CARB chief Nichols has her way, they’re going to have to do something to speed up the acceptance of alternative power. By 2025, the year the next big jump in CAFE takes effect, Nichols wants to see a full 22% of the vehicles sold in California use ZEV powertrains, and she is pushing for a virtually 100% changeover by 2025.
(Click Here for details about how EV owners are paying more, but getting less.)
The environmental leader isn’t operating in a vacuum. CARB would need to meet that stringent target to bring the auto industry into compliance with a broader mandate from California Gov. Jerry Brown, who has set an executive order of reducing the state’s greenhouse gas emissions by 80%.
Most automakers are fast expanding their battery-based product lines. Those that don’t have the right technology – as is the problem for Fiat Chrysler – could face serious problems. Falling short of the mandate could result in a company being effectively shut out of the state’s huge automotive market.
(To more about the California initiative searching for a battery breakthrough, Click Here.)
That’s just fine with some manufacturers, Tesla Motors no surprise. “Our bet is the whole industry will go electric eventually,” said CEO Elon Musk, during a conference call earlier this month. “They won’t have much choice.”