California Pulls Plug on Battery Electric Vehicles

By William J. Kelly

SACRAMENTO, California, April 28, 2003 (ENS) - California officially pulled the plug on electric vehicles Thursday, opting instead to rely on gasoline-electric hybrid vehicles and ultra-clean gasoline powered vehicles to meet clean air standards. However, in a bow to advocates of zero emission vehicles and renewable energy, the state also held out the distant flicker of hope that hydrogen powered fuel cell cars might enter the early phases of commercialization within a decade.

By a vote of 8-3, the California Air Resources Board eliminated its existing standard requiring automakers to sell thousands of battery powered electric vehicles in the Golden State. The long awaited move was designed to head off litigation against the state’s zero emissions vehicle rules.

“Mandates alone cannot overcome the laws of physics,” said air board chairman Alan Lloyd shortly before the vote in Sacramento. Automakers have maintained that short driving ranges and long recharge times made battery electric vehicles impractical for motorists.


Dr. Alan Lloyd, a chemist, is the 2003 chairman of the California Fuel Cell Partnership and is a co-founder of the California Stationary Fuel Cell collaborative. He is a past chairman of the U.S. Department of Energy Hydrogen Technical Advisory Panel. (Photo courtesy California Air Resources Board)
In a nod of agreement, the board voted instead to require automakers to produce 250 fuel cell powered cars by the end of 2008, a goal they already had agreed to under the auspices of the California Fuel Cell Partnership. Pending successful development of the emerging technology – which has gained new federal support from the Bush administration - thousands more fuel cell powered cars could be required beginning in 2009.

Meanwhile, the amended rules are expected to increase the number of ultra-clean gasoline cars, known as partial zero emissions vehicles, sold in California from some 140,000 this year to more than 600,000 in 2010. The cars – which include models of the Honda Accord, Toyota Camry, Ford Focus, Nissan Sentra, Volkswagon Jetta, and some BMW’s and Volvos - emit the equivalent of just a pint of gasoline vapors for every 100,000 miles of driving, according to the board.

In addition, the board projects that the regulatory changes will increase the number of hybrid vehicles sold in California to almost 100,000 in 2010, up from about 10,000 this year. The Toyota Prius, Honda Insight, and one model of the Honda Civic employ hybrid technology, which consists of a small gasoline engine that is boosted by a battery powered electric motor during acceleration. At cruising speeds, the gasoline engine recharges the motor’s battery pack.

Ford Motor Company soon is expected to offer the Escape, its small sport utility vehicle, as a hybrid, and other automakers are working to debut hybrid vehicles.


A prototype of a hydrogen fuel cell Ford Focus. The vehicle is featured at the 2002 Electric Vehicles Association of the Americas Transportation Industry Conference & Exposition, December 10-13, 2002 in Hollywood, Florida. (Photo by Leslie Eudy courtesy NREL)
The board rejected pressure mounted by several environmental groups to increase the number of fuel cell vehicles required by the end of 2008 from 250 to 500. “What we are aiming for is long term mass market penetration,” said Chuck Shulock, who was in charge of developing the revised standards for the board. “In the near term, practical, affordable zero emissions vehicles are an elusive goal.”

Automakers are expected to hand build each of the 250 fuel cell vehicles at a cost of $1 million a car. Pending a favorable assessment of the technology, the number of fuel cell vehicles in the state would increase to a target of 2,500 between 2009 and 2001, 25,000 between 2012 and 2014, and 50,000 between 2015 and 2017.

An independent panel of experts will review the state of automotive fuel cell development in 2006 and the air board will make any needed adjustments in those goals.

California adopted its zero emissions vehicle mandate in 1990. Originally, the mandate called for automakers to make sure that two percent of the cars they sold were pollution free – that is powered by battery electric technology – beginning in 1998 with a gradual increase to 10 percent by this year.

The board amended the standard in 2001 when it became evident that battery powered vehicles were not highly marketable, offering automakers the opportunity to gain credit toward the zero emissions standard by producing hybrids and so called partial zero emissions vehicles.


Prototype of the Nissan fuel cell Xterra featured at the 2002 Electric Vehicles Association of the Americas Transportation Industry Conference & Exposition, December 2002 (Photo by Leslie Eudy courtesy NREL)
However, when the board amended the rule in 2001, it included a fuel efficiency criterion in its credit scheme for hybrid vehicles. General Motors, DaimlerChrysler, and other automotive businesses sued California in federal court to block enforcement of the standard. They won a temporary injunction against its enforcement because states are pre-empted under federal law from adopting fuel economy standards. The injunction triggered the California board’s move to amend the zero emissions vehicle standard. The new amendments remove the fuel efficiency language.

The board voted without hearing testimony after holding an all day public hearing last month. At that hearing, automakers remained neutral on the proposed changes, although environmental groups, independent electric vehicle makers, and electric utility companies fought to retain the battery electric vehicle requirement. While they ultimately failed, some board members voiced support for retaining a battery electric vehicle requirement.

“I’m concerned we’re putting all our marbles in one basket,” said air board member Matthew McKinnon. “The battery electric vehicle is proven technology.”

Shulock said that automakers still could sell battery electric vehicles to meet up to 50 percent of the fuel cell car production requirement. However, he said that based on discussions with the major car makers they would buy battery electric vehicles from independent manufacturers rather than make the cars themselves. Most observers consider continued sales of battery electric vehicles by the major auto companies an unlikely prospect.

{Published in cooperation with Southland Reports, publisher of the California Environmental Report.}