We need Voltswagens

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Sherry Boschert is the author of "Plug-in Hybrids: The Cars That Will Recharge America."

Californians are being taken for a ride by state clean-air regulators, who are bringing the rest of the country along. Decisions made by the California Air Resources Board early next year will determine whether we get the option of driving zero-emission, non-polluting cars soon, or whether we’ll see smoggy business as usual from the car companies for another decade.

Many consumers would love to drive cars that reduce greenhouse gases and our addiction to oil, but the auomakers resist. Fortunately, the Air Resources Board has the power to compel them to make the clean cars society needs. Progress through regulation is nothing new: It took laws to get seatbelts, airbags and catalytic converters. It took laws to get average mileage standards up from 12 mpg to 27 mpg. It will take regulations to get clean cars.

The air board’s first attempt to compel clean cars -- the zero-emission-vehicle mandate of 1990 -- put thousands of gas-free electric cars in the hands of consumers, who loved them. In 2001, however, the board started giving car companies partial credit toward meeting the mandate if they sold hybrids and other gasoline-dependent cars. Bad move. Automakers sued, asserting that because the 2001 standards included gas-burning cars, they were, in essence, fuel-efficiency standards. And only the federal government can set those.


At the same time, automakers were making inflated promises to build zero-emission hydrogen fuel cell vehicles -- if they could just have a few years more. So the board gutted the zero-emission-vehicle mandate in 2003 and essentially turned it into a hydrogen research program. General Motors dangled claims that hydrogen fuel cell cars would be competitive in showrooms by 2004. Daimler-Chrysler predicted that it would sell 100,000 fuel cell cars by 2006.

But since 2003, automakers have produced fewer than 200 hydrogen fuel cell cars, each costing about $1 million, with a fuel cell lifespan of two to four years and many technological challenges left to overcome.

A few major automakers are trotting out their hydrogen hardware this week at the Los Angeles Auto Show, claiming they’ll lease small numbers of them to handpicked drivers in the next few years. In a deja vu to 2003, automakers are hyping the promise of hydrogen just as the air board is again revising the zero-emission-vehicle mandate. Behind the scenes, car companies have convinced the board’s staff that they can’t meet the goal of producing 25,000 hydrogen fuel cell vehicles after 2012, so the staff is suggesting that the board ease that requirement.

There are signs, however, that the bloom may be fading from the hydrogen rose. This month, one of the biggest fuel cell companies, Ballard Power Systems, bailed out after pouring millions of dollars into fuel cell vehicles. A Toyota official predicted that fuel cell cars won’t be mass commercialized until after 2030.

That’s not soon enough to avoid global warming, thousands of deaths from air pollution and wars over oil.

Meanwhile, the battery electric cars produced until 2003 have shown that they can do the job. Some have passed 100,000 miles on the odometer, and the batteries are still going strong. A few hybrid owners have added batteries and converted their cars to plug-in hybrids that drive mostly on electricity but retain a gas engine for long-distance trips. Building a network of fast-charging stations would cost a fraction of the tab for building hydrogen fueling stations.


The persistent bias in favor of hydrogen among state regulators defies logic -- and yet it could once again distract from fair treatment of more-realistic electric cars. Examples:

* On Thursday, the air board adopted a state alternative fuels plan that suggests using plug-in hybrids and biofuels would be cleaner than scenarios that rely on hydrogen fuel cell cars. But the plan largely ignores battery electric vehicles. That’s foolish, especially in light of a study done for the state Energy Commission that found that electric cars -- which use the existing power grid -- reduce overall greenhouse gas emissions by 68% compared with conventional cars. Hydrogen fuel cell cars -- for which there is no infrastructure -- would achieve only a 54% reduction.

* State-funded studies starting soon at UC Berkeley and UC Irvine will compare plug-in hybrids with conventional hybrids and with hydrogen fuel cell cars -- but not with battery electric cars. That makes no sense, especially because right now several major automakers are expressing interest in resuming production of electric cars. The air board should provide state-owned electric cars for the studies, if necessary, for complete comparisons.

* The board’s current zero-emission-vehicle regulations favor hydrogen by granting one fuel cell vehicle the same amount of credits as 10 electric vehicles in meeting state goals; the proposed regulations for 2008 give three fuel cell cars the same credits as four electric vehicles. Narrowing that credit gap isn’t enough. The board should insist on one-to-one technological neutrality and not push back the deadlines just because hydrogen cars aren’t ready. Treat hydrogen and electric vehicles equally, and let the market decide.

There’s no time to waste. Only California can pass clean-air laws that are stricter than federal standards. But many other states adopt California’s requirements, so what the board does has national implications for our health, for the environment and for national security. A slower drive away from gasoline is a ride we don’t want to take.