A showdown is brewing over electric cars. In March, the two main trade organizations representing international automakers filed a petition with the EPA complaining about California's zero emission vehicle mandates. The rules are indeed tough. They require sales of 1.4 million battery electric, plug-in hybrid and fuel cell vehicles by 2025, and that doesn't include conventional hybrids such as the popular (especially in California) Toyota Prius, which has now sold more than five million worldwide.
California's Air Resources Board (ARB) says that battery electrics and plug-in hybrids will be 15.4 percent of state vehicle sales by 2025, but automakers say the total won't be more than two percent. That's a huge difference. The automakers say they can build the cars, but there's no assurance that consumers will want to own them. They cite the lack of public charging stations, and skeptical marketplace.
On one hand, they certainly have a point, because zero emission cars aren't even close to one percent of the market now. Consumers have indeed been reluctant to buy EVs. Most of the sales figures for cars like the Nissan Leaf and Chevrolet Volt wouldn't be rounding errors for most of the world's popular models. There's certainly no guarantee of the kind of battery or pricing breakthroughs that will give electric cars an edge.
But from the state's point of view, the benefits are really clear. State drivers will save $5 billion in operating costs in 2025, and $10 billion by 2030. By 2025, average drivers will be saving $6,000 over their car's lifetime in fuel costs. And it's about clearing America's worst air, too. The state's mandates are expected to reduce smog-causing emissions in 2025 by 75 percent compared to 2014 levels.
Mary Nichols, ARB chairperson, isn't backing down. "Talk about shooting yourself in the foot, or maybe I could say, tripping over your own halo," she said at the SAE International World Congress in Detroit. "Rather than rehashing the same, tired legal battles of our past, why not work together to collectively support and develop this market?"
The industry counters by claiming it does nobody any good if EVs get built and sit, unsold, on dealer lots. Somehow I don't expect that to happen, especially in California. The state is in fact the only really robust market for electric vehicles in the country right now. One in 40 new cars bought in California is a plug-in model, which is kind of impressive. And the state also has the best public charging network, especially in the San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego areas.
The irony here is that after decades or rancor, the auto industry is finally on board with Washington's regulators.