Have regulators, environmentalists, and automakers reached détente on the need to boost the fuel efficiency of America’s vehicle fleet? If one judges by the bonhomie displayed on stage by California’s top climate official, a transportation advocate, and two auto-industry executives at Climate One on February 13, the answer is a resounding yes.
The panel convened two weeks after the California Air Resources Board (CARB) unanimously approved new Advanced Clean Car rules that will require nearly 1.5 million zero-emission vehicles to be on the road by 2025 – 15.4% of new vehicle sales that year. This followed a deal announced by the White House, in July 2011, under which automakers agreed to increase the fuel economy of new cars and light-duty trucks to 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025.
“This is now taking us into the 2025 timeframe, with all the rules in place, so that everybody who plays in the transportation market in California will know what’s coming,” said CARB Chair Mary Nichols.
Asked by Climate One’s Greg Dalton to comment on when hydrogen fuel cell cars will reach the mainstream, Nichols compared fuel cells cars to where electric vehicles were about a decade ago. “The technology exists. Those who can see the future know it’s coming. But to get to that point where people can see enough money in it to make it worth their while to actually invest, takes a little longer. That’s where the government gets involved, both in the form of mandates and incentives,” she said.
“I think if there’s one thing that many players in this field have learned in the last years of debate,” she went on, “is that there doesn’t have to be one fuel for one vehicle. That for the foreseeable future there’s going to be a mix of different kind of fuels and technologies out there.”
After Nichols described the new car rules, Dalton turned to one of the auto-industry executives on the panel, Shad Balch, Manager for Environment and Energy Policy at General Motors. “What does GM think of all these new rules?” he asked. “We embrace it,” said Balch. “For the first time, we’re not in disagreement with the regulation. The most significant reason is that there is harmonization between what the state is going to do, at the local level here, and what the federal government wants to do.”
“That allows us to do what we do best – that is, to innovate. Combine that with the cultural change at General Motors, and we’re going to move full steam ahead. We’re going to build and trucks that use less gasoline, if no gasoline at all.” Balch won over the Climate One crowd. The exchange elicited the first of two rounds of applause the GM rep received on the afternoon.
The new rules have the full support of all-electric vehicle makers, too. Chris Paulson, the V.P. of Strategy at Coda Automotive, said: “The work that Mary and CARB has done is really paving the way for companies like ours to exist in the first place.”
“In a lot of ways,” he said, “we are the product of the ‘Who Killed the Electric Car?’ movement. The electric car companies, a start-up like ours, are here to develop new products that have a chance to exist because the demand is there, and now the regulation matches the demand.”
Roland Hwang, Director of Transportation Programs, Natural Resources Defense Council, framed the importance of the new California and federal government rules. “This is a huge deal. When you combine this latest round of standards – 2017-2025 – with the first round of standards the Obama administration, California, and automakers negotiated back in 2009, this is the single-biggest step in a generation to get our country off of oil and cut carbon pollution.”
“It will cut your fuel bill in half. And by 2030, it will cut oil imports by a third. It will cut the equivalent, in terms of carbon pollution, of 90 million cars,” he said.
– Justin Gerdes
Photo: Rikki Ward Climate One, The Commonwealth Club HQ, San Francisco (February 13, 2012)