The California Air Resources Board (CARB) is once again planning to lower the boom on auto manufacturers by calling on them to build and sell electric vehicles (EVs) in that state.
But here's a suggestion for CARB: Instead of pushing the manufacturers, they should push the residents. They should tell them they have to buy electric cars.
Although that idea might seem absurd on the surface, it's really quite logical. For years we've heard that air pollution in California has reached dangerous levels. And we've heard that oil is the culprit. That, in essence, is why CARB is now calling for 5.5 percent of auto sales in California to be zero-emission vehicles (or "partial zero-emission vehicles") by 2018, and 14 percent by 2025. It's also why CARB is saying it'll fine the automakers $5,000 for every electric vehicle they don't sell -- in other words, every vehicle below the prescribed sales number.
Automakers are fighting this, of course. Most are saying they'd rather meet the Obama Administration's national requirement of 56.2 miles per gallon and be left to their own devices as to how to get there. They believe they could do it with a variety of technologies, including stop-start systems, turbochargers, cylinder deactivation, advanced spark engines, lighter materials, smaller cars, hybrids, and EVs. But they don't want to be given a technological ultimatum.
The reason is simple. They want to sell what they make. And they now fear they will be forced to manufacture millions of electric cars they can't sell. Having looked at scores of surveys and focus group studies, most automakers aren't yet convinced the American consumer is willing to lay out the extra $10,000 to $30,000 for a zero-emission vehicle.
EV proponents, of course, say that wouldn't happen. Moore's Law for batteries, they say, calls for energy density to double every five years and for battery prices to fall precipitously. Electric cars will improve in the same way as PCs, big-screen televisions, and cellphones, they claim.
The problem is, there is no Moore's Law for batteries. Battery manufacturers may make exorbitant claims -- they've been doing it since the late 80s -- but the reality is that we've all been spoiled by the incredible performance of silicon over the last 50 years. There is no battery material on the horizon that will improve at the rate that silicon has. Electric car batteries aren't cellphones.
And if the costs don't drop and the performance doesn't improve as hoped, what then? Most likely, the EV proclamations would do California no good. Instead of cleaner air, California would have dealership lots jammed with parked electric cars and clouds of smog hanging over its valleys.
California could change that scenario, however, by forcing its residents to buy electric cars. They could say that every two-car family must buy one EV. At the same time, they could ensure there would be a market for cars that the automakers are forced to build.
But California would never do that, of course. It's a lot easier to cast the auto industry as the bogeyman and force its companies to risk bankruptcy. Voters appreciate that -- especially the voters whose aging Oldsmobile Cieras don't turn over in the morning. On the other hand, voters don't appreciate being told that they have to replace their aging Oldsmobile Cieras with $40,000 Chevy Volts.
Still, California should float the idea. Its politicians should bravely tell the state's residents about the effects of smog on asthmatics and children and the elderly, just as they have bravely told that to the automakers. They should tell the residents that it's time to bite the bullet, gather the savings, sell off the clunkers they use to chug into work every morning, and drive home in their shiny new Nissan Leafs.
And then they should run -- very fast.