In a sharp turn for California's zero-emission vehicle program, air quality officials on Friday proposed new amendments that would postpone a deadline for smog-free cars and trucks for a decade.
The changes, while disappointing to environmentalists, don't placate the auto industry, which wanted to see the requirements for zero-emission vehicles, or ZEVs, dropped altogether.
This year was supposed to be the rollout date for thousands of highway-ready nonpolluting cars, but automakers are not producing them in significant numbers, and air quality officials say technologies do not exist today to make the vehicles widely acceptable to car buyers.
The revisions proposed by the staff of the state Air Resources Board amount to an acknowledgment that the most ambitious effort in the world to accelerate the production of cars with no tailpipe exhaust has come up short. Cars are getting dramatically cleaner, but, as yet, there are no emission-free models with performance and price acceptable to most motorists.
Facing that reality, air quality officials say they will revamp the 13-year-old program for the third time in seven years. Yet both environmentalists and automakers expressed dissatisfaction with the proposed changes and predicted a bruising clash at a public hearing before the agency's governing board on Feb. 27 in Sacramento.
"I think this is headed for a major confrontation," said David Modisette, executive director of the California Electric Transportation Coalition, which represents companies that make clean technologies. "Less than two years ago, the board strengthened the program and added ZEVs, and now the staff is proposing a flip-flop. This is a setup for failure," Modisette said. "The ZEV requirements are on life support now."
Meanwhile, automakers were disappointed that air quality officials are still pressing for nonpolluting cars. Last year, a judge blocked California from enforcing the program on the grounds that state-imposed mileage standards conflict with federal law. The lawsuit was filed by General Motors and DaimlerChrysler and was joined by the Bush administration.
The changes would postpone requirements that automakers produce large numbers of electric cars, including vehicles that run on batteries or fuel cells, until 2012. Air quality officials are counting on fuel cells, which make electricity from chemicals without producing emissions, to power a new generation of electric vehicles.
In the meantime, manufacturers would be required to produce more hybrid cars and super-clean gasoline-powered models between 2005 and 2011. The more of those cars they make, the fewer zero-emission vehicles they will be required to produce in 2012. Alternative technologies are available and are cost-effective and have been embraced by consumers. At least 15,000 hybrid vehicles operate on California highways, powered by batteries and small internal-combustion engines.
The proposed amendments also remove the contested mileage provision that triggered the lawsuit by the two automakers.
Jerry Martin, spokesman for the state air board, said California needs strong regulation to force automakers to strive for the cleanest cars possible. Many experts agree that California's insistence on a smog-free vehicle has led to dramatic emission reductions and new types of cars that are nearly nonpolluting.
"The program needs to continue," Martin said. "Because of growth in the state and the number of vehicles and miles they travel, it's going to be very difficult to attain clean air in California without the program."