California’s Electric Car Program a Very Big Step, But Contains Missteps

December 8, 2011 | 10:09 am
David Friedman
Former contributor

The California Air Resources Board (ARB) just released all the details of their new advanced clean cars program. It includes policies to cut vehicle smog-forming and particulate pollution, reduce vehicle global warming pollution (in cooperation with federal regulators), guarantee consumer access to clean fuels, and help accelerate the market for electric cars. You can see our big picture take on it here.

California is clearly on the right track. They are driving the future of the automobile away from its polluting past towards a dramatically cleaner future. And as I wrote before, California deserves special recognition for their broad role in ensuring the federal global warming pollution standards are as strong as they are.

A Good Program Can Still Have Warts

But just because they are moving in the right direction, that does not mean they’ve got everything right. As we’ve noted, the ARB needs to boost their Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV) requirements by at least 30 percent in order to give the California the best chance to get on track meet the state’s public health and climate goals.

Making matters worse, the ARB has proposed a provision that would allow automakers to get out of 40 percent of their requirements during the first four years of the strengthened program (2018-2021). That’s almost 200,000 fewer electric cars in California alone, just as the industry is expected to kick into high gear. And what do automakers have to do to cut their requirements by 40 percent? They have to over comply with federal global warming pollution requirements by less than 1 percent! Forty to one is a pretty bad exchange rate.

The ZEV Program Is About the Next Forty Years, Not Just Four

Proponents of this raw deal will likely point out that it goes away after 2021, so car companies will still have to ramp up electric car production as proposed from 2022 to 2025. But this argument ignores the history of automaker attempts to weaken the ZEV program over the past two decades.

The ZEV program, along with the global warming pollution standards, will be reviewed in about five years or so. The auto industry has a great track record of using reviews like these to weaken standards, so the requirements in the later years are already at risk. If automakers are allowed to cut electric car sales by 40 percent, they are likely to cut their investments in the technology. And if they do that, they could end up arguing that the jump in sales during the last four years is prohibitive, and that much-needed ramp-up in the latter years may never happen.

Risking Too Much

If automakers take advantage of this provision and successfully argue to weaken the program several years down the road, California will have little chance to reach an 80 percent reduction in global warming pollution by 2050. Why? Because ARB’s own analysis shows (see Figure 1 here), electric cars are a huge part of meeting that goal.

Creating all of that risk in return for just a one percent improvement in vehicle global warming pollution for four years is simply not worth it. The ARB should eliminate this provision.