CARB killed a car — what will the new law do?

Paul Jacob
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Posted: Sep 24, 2006 12:00 AM

On the last day of August, California's legislature and governor made a new law. Instead, they should have gone to the movies.

In particular, they should have gone to see Who Killed the Electric Car?

Why? Not to make the governor look foolish for driving around in his hydrogen-equipped Hummer. The documentary does argue how useless hydrogen fuel cell technology will likely prove, and what a boondoggle federal and state support for it is. But the reason to watch the flick is subtler. Perhaps if California's politicians had carefully thought about the film, they'd have stepped a little more carefully in trying to regulate California's future greenhouse gas emissions.

You see, the new law aims to decrease California's C02 emissions by 25 percent . . . by 2020. But the electric car, the focus of the documentary in question, was almost certainly killed by a previous set of California pollution-related regulations.

Admittedly, the documentarians seem more interested in distributing blame widely rather than targeting one originary factor. But, among the many allegedly guilty parties, California's Air Resources Board (CARB) stands out.

Who killed the all-electric car, many of which ran California's roads, with enthusiastic drivers? The filmmakers blame CARB for withdrawing its Zero Emissions Mandate (ZEM).

I blame CARB for mandating the sales of zero-emissions vehicles in the first place.

You see, in 1990, CARB — initially encouraged by GM's prototype battery electric car — decided that the time was ripe for mandating the sales of such vehicles. The regulation required automobile companies offering new cars in California to sell increasing percentages of zero-emissions vehicles (ZEVs) as the years flew by. The mandate even specified what those increased percentages should be in what upcoming years.

But what about the technology? We can fancy any technology we want. As a kid, I read about jet packs and hover cars. Neither is in current mass production, no matter how neat they seemed in the funny papers.

But what about a quiet, non-stinky, ZEV?

ZEVs do exist. One has been popular for over a century. It's called the bicycle.

General Motor's late ZEV, the EV1, was much more promising:

  • You didn't have to pedal it.
  • The cars went fast enough and far enough for most uses.
  • Unlike hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, their fueling infrastructure was relatively easy to devise from existing infrastructure.

Trouble was, GM was still experimenting with the technology. The line never showed a profit, and GM, though initially anxious to stay ahead of other companies in ZEV tech, was not interested in going broke to prove that tech. So, the more GM thought about California's ZEM, the less it liked it. Better to scuttle its own division; better to sacrifice one division than the whole company.

It's a real-life Atlas Shrugged scenario, only the shruggers aren't godlike heroes, they're just normal, reasonably paranoid profit-seeking businessmen, and the persecutors aren't evil personified, they're just normal, benighted bureaucrats.

This is all pretty obvious if you watch the movie, as long as you don't give too much credence to the actual conclusions of the moviemakers.

The production of new technology is risky business. When governments mandate that businesses assume risks they have little evidence can be profitable, businesses won't necessarily walk down the road to bankruptcy without a fight. Understandably, GM and other automotive manufacturers and sellers in California fought back. And CARB gave up on its ZEM. And then the existing electric vehicles were withdrawn and destroyed, not to give people — or the government — any further ideas.

The lesson seems clear: the electric car might still exist today, and in increased numbers, had not CARB mandated its development. CARB scared it off, killing the technology in its infancy.

"Wait and see" is a better attitude for bystanders — and, in the context of progress, bureaucrats are most definitely bystanders — than "mandate and wait."

Which is what I'd say to Governor Schwarzenegger and the California Legislature . . . and California's citizenry, too. There are better ways to welcome future progress than by simply requiring progress to happen.

After all, California would already be a long way to decreasing CO2 emissions had the state's previous regulations not killed production of the electric car, a car whose operation produced no (read: zero) carbon dioxide.