The following post is by Earl Killian, guest blogger at Climate Progress.

WhoKilledElectricCarIf you’ve seen the movie Who Killed the Electric Car? (which is ranked No. 8 on Netflix in documentary rentals), then you know the EV story up to 2003. What you might not know is that it looks like one of the players in the movie, the California Air Resources Board, is up to no good again.

In killing Battery Electric Vehicles (BEVs) the first time, they put off progress on this front for a decade. Now they are preparing, at their March 27 meeting, to kill BEVs a second time and probably waste another decade. We don’t have another decade. In Part 2 you will find information on what you can do to let CARB know what you think.

This post provides background on the CARB’s sorry zero-emission vehicle (ZEV) legacy. For background on BEVs, PHEVs (plug-in hybrid EVs), and FCVs (fuel cell vehicles) see Joe’s January post on plug-in hybrids and electric cars. The major automakers are likely to produce plug-in hybrids on their own, but not ZEVs, and yet eventually we want ZEVs to be a part of the fleet to get the greenhouse gas reduction necessary in 2050.

Back in 1990, to help fix chronically unhealthy air in California cities, CARB required that 2 percent of California new vehicle sales have zero emissions by 1998. Zero Emission Vehicles (ZEVs) were then supposed to reach 3 percent by 2001, and 10 percent by 2003, and it was presumed that ZEV meant BEV. In 1996, under automaker pressure, CARB removed the 2 percent and 3 percent requirements but left the 10 percent goal in place. It also allowed low emission vehicles (misleadingly called Partial ZEVs or PZEVs) to substitute for some ZEVs.

In 2001 they tinkered again and added a new category, Advanced Technology (AT) PZEVs, which are essentially hybrids. They also changed the 10 percent goal to 2 percent ZEVs, 2 percent AT PZEVs, and 6 percent PZEVs. The program began to resemble a Rube Goldberg contraption at this point, with gold, silver, and bronze categories. The program’s complexity has continued to grow since.

In 2002, the automakers attacked with a lawsuit claiming the AT PZEV provisions were an attempt to regulate fuel economy, a right they claimed was reserved for the federal government. (The Bush administration filed an amicus brief supporting the automakers in the suit, presaging its later efforts to fight any attempts to address clean air and global warming.) A few months later, the automakers obtained an injunction preventing CARB from enforcing the 2001 program. By this point, the regulations had put 5,600 ZEVs on U.S. roads [PDF], 4,400 in California, but the injunction and later settlement effectively put an end to the automakers’ efforts.

As we now know, the federal courts ruled last year that California does have the the right to regulate greenhouse-gas emissions under EPA waivers, so the automakers’ lawsuit had no merit. (Interestingly, it was mighty Vermont that first vanquished the automakers in court, not California.) However, in 2003, Governor Davis and CARB were spineless and settled with the automakers, rather than stand up for California’s rights. Rather than simply remove the AT PZEV provision that had been used as the basis of the lawsuit, CARB essentially redesigned the entire program to the automakers’ specification.

What the automakers wanted was a hydrogen Fuel Cell Vehicle (FCV) research program. Like BEVs, FCVs have zero tailpipe emissions. They got their research program, and they didn’t have to deliver anything but prototypes until nine years later, in 2012. Under the agreement, in 2012 to 2014, they are supposed to put 8,333 FCVs a year (0.4 percent) onto the roads. From the original 1998 target of 2 percent ZEVs, they had pushed it out fourteen years and cut the numbers by a factor of five.

Even this was not enough for the automakers. As CARB’s fact sheet [PDF] explains of BEVs, “consumers quickly bought these highly functional vehicles and called for more.” Consumers sat on waiting lists hoping for automakers to produce more. However, the automakers’ next step was not to produce more vehicles, but to pry the BEVs they had leased from the hands of enthusiastic drivers as the leases expired (drivers were refused both the customary options of lease renewal or purchase).

As a result, fewer than 1,200 of these vehicles are on U.S. roads today. Some suggest that the automakers did not want the evidence of what was possible on the roads. Since the massacre, they have consistently taken the line that the technology for ZEVs is not ready, ignoring what they once put on the roads, and in some cases what remain on the roads (several RAV4-EV drivers now have over 100,000 miles on their BEVs, and they continue on).

Returning to 2008, the 2012 deadline now looms for ZEVs in the program created by CARB in conjunction with the automakers. Now the automakers are squealing that they cannot meet the fuel cell targets they used to kill BEVs back in 2003, and CARB staff is obligingly rolling over and proposing to weaken the regulations yet again. Now CARB staff proposes [PDF] that a mere 840 ZEVs a year — 0.04 percent of sales — will be sufficient for the major automakers. In all probability, start-ups such as Tesla will outsell the ZEV goal target for the majors. Worse, if history is a guide to the future, in 2012, CARB will roll over again and push out targets yet again. CARB is doing this despite the fact that major automakers are starting to back away from FCVs, and it is the infeasibility of FCVs that is being used as the excuse for delaying clean air.

Electric vehicles (both PHEVs and BEVs) are the best way to address greenhouse-gas emissions from passenger vehicles. New Technology Adoption S-curve BEVs allow us to fuel our driving with electricity made with no greenhouse-gas emissions, and that is where our electricity production must head in the coming decades. To kill BEVs in 2003 and put a fuel cell vehicle research program in place has already had horrible consequences for our atmosphere. Vehicle Fleet Technology Mix It takes decades for new vehicle sales to change the vehicle fleet, and it takes decades for new vehicle technology to gain consumer acceptance (seven years after hybrids were introduced, they have now reached only 2 percent of vehicle sales). It is time to abandon the fuel cell research program and begin production of vehicles that have the potential to operate without emissions. Examples of new technology adoption rates and the resulting fleet old/new technology composition are shown in the graphs to the right. Only by starting now do we have a chance to reach our 2050 targets.