California Muddies The Green Road Yet Again

California’s clean air regulators voted Thursday to again revise the state rules that had directed automakers to put hundreds of thousands of zero-emission vehicles on the road by 2003. The new requirement is for 7,500 zero-emission vehicles in the period 2012-14, or about a 70 percent reduction from 2003 targets.

If we want to know who killed the electric car? It might not be GM, so much as the California Air Resources Board.

CARB at the same time called for partial zero emission (PZEV) vehicles and advanced technology PZEVs. The new requirement is 66,000 plug-in electrics by 2012-2014.

There is probably nothing so confusing on the AutoBeat than trying to sort out the tortured logic of regulators trying to force greener vehicles on the public. GM, for example, is now saying that plug-in electrics, which run on a battery and has a motor that keep the car running as it recharges the battery after it runs out of juice, could easily cost $48,000 by late 2010 or 2011 when they go on sale. By taking a loss on each unit in the beginning, combined with government incentives, the price at retail might be closer to $32,000.

Meantime, it appears to me that had California kept its mandate on electric and zero-emission vehicles like hydrogen, there is ample evidence that the public’s appetite and interest for electrics is coming back and there is an abundance of products around the world that could have made their way into the California fleet.

Cutting back the electric mandate—technology we have—and pushing the plug-in mandate, which is technology coming, and hydrogen—technology that is pure r&d—seems unfair. God forbid, state regulators, not to mention the Feds, would take the far simpler, politically riskier step of increasing gas taxes. That would force a natural shift to more fuel efficient vehicles (I.e Explorer buyers trading over to Tauruses and Fusions), and the gas tax money could be applied to tax rebates to low-income drivers and to early adopters of green technology. But that would take actual courage given the political fallout these days from raising any tax.

As usual, there is lots of complexity haggled over between automakers and rulemakers. For example, there is a hierarchy among types of zero-emission vehicles, meaning the number of such cars that automakers will have to make by 2014 could vary greatly. If, for example, carmakers produce only hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles with a driving range of 300 miles or more, the number they would be required to make could be as few as 5,357 — or 297 cars per automaker per year. I can just see companies now paying people to take that many hydrogen vehicles. If they make only short-range electric vehicles, though, the required number would jump to 12,500.

It all makes my head hurt.

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