California Eyes Self-Driving Cars to Help Meet Emission Goal

  • State also wants more charging stations, air board chief says
  • Steps for now may avoid tougher goals environment groups seek

California may focus on building more electric-vehicle charging stations and encouraging battery-powered self-driving cars to reach its mandate for zero-emission autos, avoiding for now the need for tougher standards being pushed by environmental groups.

“Probably the next wave of activity has to be on the charging side and maybe other kinds of incentives for automated cars,’’ Mary Nichols, the chairman of the state’s powerful Air Resources Board, said in an interview. California, the biggest auto market among U.S. states, has the authority to set pollution rules that are more stringent than national standards.

Fleets of autonomous cars being tested by Uber Technologies Inc. and others are generating excitement that might help California avoid stiffer regulations for 2025, Nichols said. While that may bring some relief to automakers who say they’re already scrambling to meet the current target, it could disappoint environmental groups that have pressed the board to strengthen that zero-emission vehicle, or ZEV, mandate.

Environmentalists are seeking tougher targets in part because there’s an oversupply of credits that Tesla Motors Inc. and others are earning by selling more battery-powered cars and plug-ins with longer range. The surfeit of credits under the current system could be used by automakers to build fewer zero-emission cars and trucks, resulting in those vehicles accounting for just 6 percent of California sales by 2025, compared to the agency’s earlier projection of 15.4 percent, Dan Sperling, a member of the board, has said.

The board’s staff is scheduled to recommend changes to the mandate in December, with the agency’s directors to make a final decision next year.

GM Plan

Nichols, speaking in an interview during a symposium the agency began Tuesday in suburban Los Angeles, said self-driving cars could be a big part of the state’s low-carbon future. That’s because the extensive array of onboard computers and sensors they require can be matched more easily with motors powered by electricity than by gasoline, she said.

To increase public awareness of zero-emission vehicles, General Motors Co. plans to include them in ride-sharing fleets organized by Lyft Inc., Britta Gross, director of the automaker’s advanced vehicle commercialization policies, said at the symposium Tuesday. GM took a $500 million stake in Lyft in January.

To boost ZEV sales, Nichols said she also favors public education campaigns paid for by automakers, electric utilities, charging companies, labor unions, major employers and others, plus continued subsidies for buyers of such vehicles, which could be paid out of auto registration fees.

Nichols, who began her current term as chairman in 2007, is the architect of the board’s zero-emission mandate. That requirement is driving carmakers to introduce 68 battery-only, plug-in hybrid or fuel-cell vehicles in the state by 2021, according to the board’s data, almost triple the 24 available now.

Charging Networks

As the number of ZEV choices increases, California will also need more electric charging stations. The state now has about 10,000 stations, or only 10 percent as many as it will need by 2020, according to a study by the federal government’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

The expansion of the charging network is going slower than expected because of sparring among utilities and others over who will build and own it, Nichols said. Also, most Californians don’t have access to time-shifting billing plans that would let them recharge their cars with cheaper electricity during off-peak hours, so they wind up paying as much or more for electricity as they would for gasoline, she said.

Building out the charging network could also be slowed by a shortfall in the state’s cap-and-trade revenue that oil companies and others generate when they buy credits instead of offering low-carbon fuels like renewable natural gas and diesel, Nichols said. The money raised by the cap-and-trade fees has been less than expected, in part because of a California Chamber of Commerce lawsuit that claims the program is a tax that legislators haven’t properly approved. That litigation is now before an appeals court.

Long-Term Need

Nichols said she’s determined to create a more stringent zero-emission vehicle standard for after 2025. To meet the state’s long-term targets for carbon dioxide-reduction targets, 40 percent of California’s new vehicles will need to be zero-emission models by 2040, according to the board’s staff.

That state still has a long way to go in reaching that mark.

Despite federal tax credits and state rebates that for-low income San Joaquin Valley residents can total about 40 percent of the $31,800 starting price of a battery-powered Fiat 500e, zero-emission vehicles have been stuck at about 3 percent of California sales since 2014. About three-quarters of households in the state have yet to seriously consider an electric car or plug-in, according to a study by the University of California at Davis released in March.

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