Four of the top carmakers are asking the California Air Resource Board (CARB) to give more credits to plug-in hybrids under the state’s emission regulations.
It’s a plea heard from automakers before: the government can mandate emission requirements, but let us dictate the technology used to reach those regulations. Now, as California’s guidelines undergo an official review, American Honda Motor Co., Ford Motor Co., General Motors and Toyota Motor Corp. are asking for an increase in credits for the sales of plug-in hybrid vehicles (PHEVs.)
CARB’s current regulation requires about 15-percent of new vehicles sold to be zero emission vehicles (ZEVs) by 2025, with minor recognition for PHEVs. Both all-electric and fuel cell vehicles are listed as ZEVs.
CARB rules also recognize two low-emission categories. While carmakers can fulfill a portion of their emission requirements with the sales of these vehicles, the credit is significantly lower than for full-electric models:
- BEVx are battery-electric vehicles that use an internal combustion engine to extend range. A BMW i3 REx is an example.
- TZEV, or transitional zero-emission vehicles, are more commonly called plug-in hybrids. The Chevrolet Volt, Ford Fusion Energi and Toyota Prius Plug-In fall under this category.
The problem with the current rule, said carmakers, is getting enough qualifying sales. Though California can require automakers to build a certain percentage of ZEVs, it can’t mandate that consumers buy them.
This can lead car companies to offer profit-cutting rebates in order to sell more ZEVs. Robert Bienenfeld, senior manager for environment and energy strategy at American Honda Motor Co., said this current policy could also unfairly pit ZEVs against PHEVs.
“What we don’t want is to make the perfect the enemy of the good,” said Bienenfeld in an interview with Automotive News.
“The way the auto industry works is: When you have something that’s really good, people flock to it. You can see that there’s appeal to your technology.”
When looking at sales for companies that build both internal combustion models and alternatively fueled models, the gap between the low and zero emission vehicles is clear. Last year, plug-in sales were 16-percent higher than battery electric sales.
BEVs are making solid sales gains, however. After removing totals from Tesla (who only builds electric vehicles) sales from 2013 to 2014 jumped from 28,909 to 46,775.
For companies like General Motors, increasing a plug-in credit is key. According to the Detroit Free Press, Chevrolet was the top brand for buying carbon offsets for 2012 and 2013. By the end of 2015, Chevrolet will have purchased 8 million tons of carbon offsets at a cost of $40 million.
The Chevrolet Volt led sales for the plug-in market last year, with more than 18,000 units sold. In comparison, Chevrolet’s all-electric Spark posted only 1,100 sales.
CARB member Dan Sperling, who is also the director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California-Davis, said the automaker’s underlying emission calculations are logical.
“I’m willing to make a bet with you,” Sperling said to CARB Chairman Mary Nichols.
“If we provided a more flexible approach, we are likely to get far more e-miles in 2030 than we would with pure EVs.
“I really don’t believe by 2030 we’re going to be able to get a really large market penetration with pure EVs.”
Nichols doesn’t agree, saying that only by having 100-percent of ZEVs on the road, will California reach its 2050 goal of an 80-percent reduction in emissions from 1990 levels.
Simon Mu, director of clean vehicles and fuels at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said that giving too much credit to PHEVs might also backfire.
“Right here, right now, this year, your Volt may be getting as much electric mileage as my Leaf,” Mui said. “But if automakers stop short of developing longer-range EVs, what does that mean for our long-term goals? There are some open questions.”
Finding the ideal ratio of zero emission and plug-in vehicles to meet long-term goals – while still securing enough consumer sales for carmakers – is a complex issue that CARB officials will be working through during this review process. Even though Nichols didn’t support Sperling’s statement, she said she is still looking to find the best solution:
“I don’t know where you would find a better example anywhere in the world of a public deliberating body struggling with a really big issue.”