The following is a guest essay by Marc Geller, who blogs at Plugs and Cars, serves on the board of directors of the Electric Auto Association, cofounded Plug In America and, and appeared in Who Killed The Electric Car.


whokilledtheelect.jpgThe IEEE Spectrum Magazine for November 2007 touts on its cover: “Battery or Fuel-Cell Cars? A California Cabal Will Decide.” Interesting choice of headlines. Surely a strong argument can be made that something approaching a cabal turned a practical electric-cars-on-the-road mandate into a research and development program for hydrogen fuel cell vehicles.

Carmakers are desirous of delaying the inevitable but problematic move to electric drive. Oil companies shut out of electric markets are exploring biofuels and hydrogen as potential markets they could control. Academics awash in government and corporate grants analyse and research biofuels and hydrogen. The problem with electric is it is here now. Proven, ready to market. No significant need for research. Batteries could always use a nudge, but the 100-plus-mile battery has existed for over a decade. Price needs to come down by a factor of two at most, not a factor of 100. Economies of scale, baby!

Facts are facts. Not five years ago we had thousands (about 6,000, to be exact) of battery electrics as daily drivers for consumers like you and me and utility fleets like PG&E and SCE. Thanks to Plug In America‘s predecessor, about 1000 of those cars still drive today on the original batteries using existing electric infrastructure. Their owners love them, and when one appears on the used car market it sells for more than the $42,000 original MSRP.

Also today, instead of thousands more electric cars envisioned by the original ZEV mandate, we have about two hundred one-million-dollar hydrogen FCVs functioning as demo vehicles, limited by the lack of infrastructure, and lasting the limited two- to four-year life of their fuel cell stack.

The IEEE article does a decent job of wending through the ZEV morass. Auto makers still want lots of credit for fuel cells, they just don’t want to keep to the agreed timetable. That which they don’t kill (EVs in 2003) they hope to delay (FCVs in 2008).

However, plug-in cars — both plug-in hybrids and electric cars — are seeing a resurgence. Every car maker has announced intentions to plug something in. But they certainly don’t want a mandate to do it. Groups such as Plug In America are asking for parity for zero emission vehicles of whatever type. They say the point is ZEV miles on the road. ARB Board member and recipient of millions in fuel cell and hydrogen grants Dan Sperling fears parity will lead auto makers to take the cheaper “easy way,” battery electric cars. “Automakers might abandon their fuel-cell programs,” he said.

“So what?” reply proponents of battery electric cars, citing battery improvements that surpass fuel cell advancements and existing infrastructure supplying domestically produced fuel at a fraction of the cost of gasoline. A ZEV is a ZEV is a ZEV, they point out — and even Toyota admits we won’t see FCVs in the showroom until 2030 at the earliest. ARB is meant to put ZEVs on the road, meeting real people’s needs. Only battery cars can do that near term. CARB could nudge that process along as the ZEV program is revised early in 2008. The IEEE article contains a germ of hope:

… thanks to today’s climate — economic, political and atmospheric — some consumers are ready to trade range for a car that costs less to run and produces less pollution. CARB Chairwoman Mary Nichols agrees. “People are willing to take a chance …”

This post was created for, a project of the Center for American Progress Action Fund.