If you regard the annual L.A. Auto Show that opens to the public Friday as a key signpost of where the auto industry is heading — and why not? — then the declaration by its organizers that the event marks "the official arrival of the electric car era" raises the following question.
Isn't this the same industry that told us a few years ago that there was no market for electric cars?
I know: Times change. But the apparent enthusiasm with which the automakers are jumping into a technology that they once suggested might not be ready for prime time within our lifetimes should be scoured for hidden lessons.
That's because the tug-of-war between the auto industry and environmental regulators such as the California Air Resources Board (CARB) is never-ending. In fact, it's about to enter a new phase, as the state board begins the process of reexamining its standards for zero-emission vehicles this month.
California's zero-emission vehicle program, which dates from 1990, is surely the nation's most important government initiative in terms of its influence on the development of alternative-fuel transportation. When the state put its foot down, the industry got serious about electric cars, hydrogen fuel cells and other technologies; when the agency has backed off, so have the automakers.
Over the years, the industry put a lot of pressure on California to lighten up on its standards and deadlines for the marketing of low-emission, high-mileage vehicles. The issue on the table these days is whether it gave in too easily or too much, and whether "the electric car era" might have arrived sooner if it had held firm. Many electric-car enthusiasts say that's the case; the industry says it moved as fast as it could, and some people think that to a certain extent both conclusions are true.
"The good thing about CARB is that they listen and they're not afraid to adjust," V. John White, executive director of the Sacramento-based Center for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Technologies, told me. "On the other hand, sometimes they lose their nerve."
The state air board sets overall goals for zero-emission vehicles in three-year swaths; we're currently in the 2009-to-2011 period, with progressively more ambitious goals set for 2012 to 2014 and for 2015 to 2017. Automakers can meet these goals with zero-emission vehicles such as plug-in electric cars, or by higher numbers of low-emission, but not zero-emission, cars such as hybrids, plug-in hybrids or very high-mileage gasoline cars.
Each category of vehicle gets a certain number of credits, which the companies can bank and spend to meet their targets. The state makes public each company's credit balance, but not its individual target production. So what we know is that all the major carmakers — Toyota, Honda, Nissan, GM, Ford, and Chrysler — will have to put the equivalent of a total of 25,000 plug-in electric cars (no gasoline) on the California roads from 2012 to 2014.
But if the industry met its overall requirement entirely with hydrogen fuel cell cars, it would need to sell only 7,300; if all the cars were plug-in hybrids similar to a next-generation Prius that Toyota expects to bring out in 2012, there would have to be 58,000 of those to meet the total standard.
Each automaker can choose how to meet its assigned target, which is based on its California sales. "We don't make assumptions as to how the manufacturers are going to comply with specific products," says Elise Keddie, CARB's manager of zero-emission vehicle implementation.
Automakers can buy credits from one another. Tesla Motors, for instance, has collected more than $12 million, mostly from Honda, for unneeded credits it collected for sales of its all-electric Roadster.
Yet there are signs that some major automakers soon will be racking up more credits from producing green cars than they can consume in years. Critics regard that as a sign that CARB has been too easy.
"Do you really want to be giving a manufacturer credit in 2020 for a vehicle that was made back in 2003?" asks Simon Mui, a clean vehicles expert at the Natural Resources Defense Council in San Francisco. "That will reduce the stringency of whatever standard there will be."
Chelsea Sexton, a prominent electric car advocate, says California air quality officials probably know they weren't aggressive enough. She suggests that if the state tightened the 2012-to-2014 target to 25,000 cars a year for each major manufacturer, it might resume its former role of leading the industry to new technologies, rather than following.
Keddie says the air board considers its requirements "very appropriate" given the availability of technology. She says the agency will tighten the targets for 2018 and beyond, in part by removing two categories of vehicles that automakers can use today to meet its targets (extremely clean gasoline cars and "advanced technology" cars like the conventional Prius).
No one will be surprised to hear the auto industry ask for more regulatory forbearance as the state agency starts its review of zero-emission standards this month. The record shows that most energy-based industries never think there's a good time for environmental regulation. One can always cite a reason to put it off: the technology's not ready, the economy's too fragile etc., etc.
The record also shows that the advance of technology will almost always surprise you with its speed, and that regulations that spur innovation always have a positive economic effect. For proof, just call out the words "green tech here!" at any meeting of venture capitalists and watch heads turn.
This doesn't mean that any specific technology will outpace expectations, but that when there are adequate incentives to hit a target, it's a good bet that some technology will emerge to meet the challenge.
Back in 2005, remember, the state placed a high-profile bet with hydrogen cars. The California hydrogen highway campaign was launched by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. The blueprint called for 50 to 100 hydrogen filling stations by 2010, serving 2,000 hydrogen vehicles.
It's now 2010. Raise your hand if there's a hydrogen filling station in your neighborhood. Anybody? Yet plug-in hybrids like the new Chevrolet Volt and pure electric vehicles like the Nissan Leaf have popped up seemingly out of nowhere. (The Volt won't qualify as even a "partial zero emission" car at first, but Chevy says technological upgrades will bring it into the program in 2012.)
Such is the hidden lesson: It's possible to oversell a specific technology, but even easier to undersell the capability of technological change. And as long as regulators don't put away their sticks, industry will discover capabilities it never thought it had.
Michael Hiltzik's column appears Sundays and Wednesdays. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org, read past columns at latimes.com/hiltzik, check out facebook.com/hiltzik and follow @latimeshiltzik on Twitter.