Driving Technology

by Carolyn Chase


At its upcoming board meeting (September 7/8, 2000), the California Air Resources Board will consider whether to weaken, delay, or maintain one of California's most intriguing - and important - clean air approaches - the ZEV Program.

A zero-emission vehicle, or ZEV, is one that has no tailpipe emissions and doesn't require any gasoline. The only "pure ZEV" cars are currently 100% electric. In the future, hydrogen fuel cells would qualify.

The State of California's ZEV Program, first adopted in 1990 by the California Air Resources Board (CARB), initially required that these significantly cleaner vehicles make up two percent of a manufacturer's fleet of new cars by 1998, five percent by 2001, and ten percent by 2003. Over the years, these standards were reduced to better match technical - and political - reality. Automakers now have a flexible system of standards where other alternative-fuel combinations qualify for credit toward ZEV goals.

But major automakers have been none too interested in undermining their existing "cash cars." They are lobbying again to eliminate or further weaken the standard. They have not yet manufactured significant numbers of ZEVs, nor have they marketed them aggressively. Less than 3,000 electric vehicles are on the roads. However, the technology keeps improving, and consumers have demonstrated demand by queuing up on year-long waiting lists for the opportunity to lease an electric car.

Since the inception of the ZEV Program, alternative vehicle technology has progressed in leaps and bounds. The ZEV Program can take credit for electric vehicles that now travel more than 100 miles on a charge, gasoline-electric hybrids that get 70 miles to the gallon, and super low-polluting gasoline vehicles. Earlier this year, The Sacramento Bee editorialized that, "the mandate has been essential in spurring manufacturers to reach for cleaner, more durable technologies."

The ZEV Program has received national attention as an effective technology-driving standard. By compelling manufacturers to meet cleaner car standards for a percentage of their fleets, we have improved air quality and taken the first steps to a pollution-free future.

But just as they initially resisted such safety innovations as seat belts and airbags, the auto industry is fighting the transition to cleaner cars every step of the way. Without the requirements of the ZEV Program, major automakers will happily shelve cleaner cars for their more profitable, more polluting models.

But automakers possess the technology to give Californians the option to drive cleaner and more fuel-efficient automobiles. While we are reeling from high gas prices, CARB should not weaken a program that provides cleaner alternatives to gasoline and helps give consumers a choice: a choice to reject technologies of the past and to help usher in a new era of environmental responsibility and energy efficiency.

Other benefits of pushing for cleaner cars include:

- Improved human health.

Cars and trucks are the still the largest source of air pollution in
California. The smog-forming pollutants, toxics and particulate
matter from gasoline vehicles aggravate asthma, bronchitis and
emphysema. These pollutants also can contribute to premature deaths
among people suffering from heart and lung disease.

- Reduced environmental damage.

The refining and burning of gasoline and its additives releases toxins into the air that settle in our water and on our land. Reduced petroleum consumption will reduce the risk of devastating oil spills on the ocean and reduce the amount of oily runoff reaching our waterways from paved areas. Gasoline vehicles also emit carbon dioxide (every gallon of gasoline is responsible for 25 pounds of CO2 emissions), the primary global warming gas, into the tmosphere. ZEVs are an important contribution to reducing global warming missions.

- A stronger economy.

California has the resources to lead the country, if not the world, in advanced transportation technology. This new sector is creating more and better jobs for Californians.

California is the third-largest consumer of gasoline in the world. Vehicles that run on less gasoline - or, better still, no gasoline at all - will help insulate California's economy from fluctuations in the price of crude oil. California drivers alone will spend over $20 billion at the gas pump this year. The single most important step California can take to address our over-dependence of oil is to require efficiency and promote alternative forms of energy in transportation, which accounts for the majority of petroleum consumed in California.

For the last decade, automakers have reaped enormous profits by selling highly polluting, gas-guzzling SUV's and light trucks. Not only has this befouled our environment, but the increased gas consumption has left consumers vulnerable to global oil politics. Since the number of motor vehicles in California is expected to double, the challenge of protecting the environment and protecting consumers will only get worse. If we don't evolve the way our vehicles are fueled, we will face increasing environmental and public health damage.

The technology exists for high quality ZEVs. If the requirement to produce ZEVs is maintained, we will see accelerated technological advances and increased cost-effectiveness.

The ZEV Program has had a positive impact on California and is an important component in our efforts to reduce air pollution, global warming emissions and our costly dependence on foreign oil. Consumers deserve a clean car choice and ZEV standards should be maintained. Materials are available for public review and comment at www.arb.ca.gov.