I Want My ZEV

Automakers say they shouldn't have to make as many zero-emission cars as California law requires, because no one is buying them. But we found plenty of folks looking for entire fleets of green cars and being turned away, because there aren't enough on the market.

| Tue Jan. 23, 2001 4:00 AM EST

This week, automakers will try to convince California officials to relax regulations requiring them to bring thousands of electric cars to market in the next two years, arguing that there simply isn't enough demand for the "zero-emissions vehicles." But a MotherJones.com survey has found prospective buyers all over the state eager to buy thousands of electric cars -- if only they were available.

Currently, the so-called ZEV mandate requires the industry to produce around 23,000 electric vehicles for sale in 2003. The California Air Resources Board is considering a proposal to reduce that number to as low as 4,600. Environmentalists charge that the state can't afford to water down the regulation any further; since CARB adopted the mandate in 1990, it has already slashed the number of ZEVs by more than half. California's stance on ZEVs may well affect other parts of the country, because the federal Clean Air Act allows states to follow either federal emission requirements or tougher standards set by California.

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Carmakers, however, insist that there's no way they can comply with the regulation because demand for battery-powered cars -- the only ones that currently qualify as ZEVs -- is nowhere near CARB's current quota. "Our conclusion is that there is no sustainable customer demand at this time," DaimlerChrysler representative Reg Modlin testified to CARB last year.

The manufacturers point out that electric vehicles, despite major advances in the past two decades, are still saddled with two significant drawbacks: Their ranges are shorter than gasoline cars and they take longer to recharge than ordinary vehicles take to refuel. One Toyota/GM-sponsored survey went so far as to claim that an all-electric vehicle would have to be approximately "$28,000 less expensive than a comparable internal-combustion vehicle before (consumers) would agree to own and drive it." Car companies brandished the study before CARB last year, saying it showed that the ZEV mandate was just a well-intentioned pipe dream.

But many buyers of battery cars say the automakers have it all backwards: It's a lack of supply, they claim, not demand, that's really holding the vehicles back.

Pacific Gas and Electric, which uses about 4,000 light-duty vehicles in its fleet, began phasing in electric vehicles in the late 1990s. The utility currently uses about 30 electric vehicles; Kent Harris, head of PG&E's electric vehicle program, says he would like to replace up to 1,500 of the company's gas vehicles with electric ones, but the carmakers aren't providing any more. "Unfortunately, the production plans have been fairly limited," he says. "We take what we can get."

Other fleet operators in California have run into similar bottlenecks. Ed Kjaer, the director of electric transportation at Southern California Edison, says he heads up the largest electric fleet in the US, with about 320 electric vehicles. But he says that last year, the utility wanted to buy 120 more, but could only find a handful. Until their current economic woes cancelled all fleet expansion plans, the company was interested in buying up to another 200 electric vehicles every year, he added.

Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory's 280-vehicle fleet currently includes about 20 electric vehicles, but the fleet manager says dozens more could be switched to electric if the supply were adequate. And San Francisco, a city that has taken aggressive steps to use more electric vehicles, has also been stymied by the lack of supply. City parking officials, for instance, recently went shopping for ZEVs; unable to find enough that fit their needs, the department ended up buying 30 more gasoline-powered vehicles, says Rick Ruvolo, head of the city's clean air program. "The lack of availability of cars is a major threat to this entire program," says Ruvolo.

The US Postal Service recently ordered some 480 battery vehicles for use in California and is interested in buying up to 6,000 over the next few years. They haven't received any of the vehicles yet, says the coordinator of the program, but don't anticipate any supply problems.

All told, the sampling of fleet operators in California contacted by MotherJones.com expressed interest in buying up to about 9,000 vehicles over the next few years. And there are dozens of other fleets across the state.

In addition to organized demand from institutions, there is clear evidence of demand from private individuals. Many fleet operators report that after driving electric vehicles at work and seeing that they're generally reliable and feasible, some workers turn their sights on buying ones for themselves. All too often, however, they run into the same problem: Commercially available ZEVs are few and far between.

In Vacaville, Calif., a small city between San Francisco and Sacramento, transportation systems manager Ed Huestis started up a program in 1998 to encourage electric vehicle use. With the help of federal, state and regional funding, Huestis' program subsidizes the cost of leasing electric vehicles to bring them in line with that of gasoline cars. Huestis found that with this modest economic incentives, many people were happy to hop into battery-powered cars. About a dozen Vacaville residents, including Huestis himself, have leased vehicles through the program so far -- and the only thing preventing more locals from getting behind an electric automobile's wheel is a lack of supply. Huestis has a waiting list of over 100 people eager to pick up their own ZEVs.

If one assumed that a similar proportion of drivers statewide was interested in buying electric vehicles, that would mean more than 40,000 people waiting for their own battery-powered cars -- almost double the number of cars for sale demanded by the ZEV mandate in 2003. And that tally only includes the numbers of people who are willing to enter their names on a waiting list and try their luck with the spotty supply pattern of electric vehicles. It doesn't count the number of people who would buy or lease cars the standard way: heading to their local dealer and picking up their vehicles there.

Like many ZEV buyers, Bob Seldon, a GM EV1 owner from Santa Monica, raves about the electric experience. "It's probably the closest thing to perfection I've ever driven," he says, impressed with the quieter ride, being able to charge his car at home and, of course, the ecological benefit. "I have no intention of going back to gasoline."

Consumers in other states have run into similar supply shortages. The Georgia Power Company, for instance, currently helps its employees lease over 100 battery cars and would go for more -- up to 100 per year -- if supply could keep up with their demand. Officials in the company also bemoan the fact that some of the most preferable models are simply not available in Georgia.

GM spokesman Jeff Kuhlman says that while consumers might say they intend to buy ZEVs, "no one ever came forward with an order as big" as the purchase order that Georgia Power now claims to want to make.

Ford Motor Company spokesman Brendan Prebo says that while Ford did notice a bona fide demand for Ford's battery vehicles, the demand for such freeway-capable electric cars would never be enough to justify making them.

True enough, at present battery-powered cars do cost far more to produce than their gasoline-powered counterparts, and are typically sold at a loss. The manufacturing-cost discrepancy can largely be attributed to electric vehicles' small production runs; while each major automaker turns out millions of internal combustion vehicles every year, they only produce hundreds of battery vehicles and therefore can't take advantage of mass production techniques that would bring the cost down dramatically. "With an economy of scale, you might solve the cost problem" of electric vehicles, acknowledges Prebo.

ZEV suporters and automakers disagree on how many battery vehicles the companies would have to make bring costs down near that of gasoline vehicles, but critics charge the car companies have done next to nothing to ramp up production levels at all. Ruvolo says one auto company official confided to him that the company refused to demonstrate one of its battery models in San Francisco, knowing it would generate demand for the costly vehicle.

If CARB lowers its quota, and with it the supply of electric cars, it may be a long time before anyone finds out just how many drivers really are interested in ecologically friendly vehicles.

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