COSTA MESA, Calif. Auto manufacturers this week made a plea for California to back off its zero-emission vehicles mandate and admit that the technology driving battery-powered electric cars is failing in the marketplace. The debate comes as the outlook for hybrid vehicles appears more favorable than for their battery-powered cousins.
"This mandate is a train wreck waiting to happen," said David Hermance, executive engineer of environmental engineering at Toyota Technical Center (Gardena, Calif.). "If the California Air Resources Board makes us build the vehicles, we'll build them. But they'll just end up sitting on the lots."
Comments from both sides were heard during a technical panel discussion on air quality at the Future Transportation Technology Conference, held Aug. 21-23 and sponsored by the Society of Automotive Engineers.
The panel discussion was the final formal discourse before a scheduled Sept. 7-8 meeting of the California Air Resources Board (CARB) The Sacramento-based board is expected to reach a tentative decision on the mandates at the September meeting.
CARB representatives at this week's conference would not hint at any conclusion in the matter. "We're listening to both sides," said Thomas Cackette, deputy director of the board. "The auto makers would like to see our mandate for battery-powered vehicles go down to zero. But there are a lot of people in this state who are testifying that we should force them to build those cars."
The board's current mandate calls for 4 percent of the vehicles sold in California to meet zero-emission vehicle status by 2003. Under current regulations, that would mean that all of those 4 percent, or approximately 22,000 vehicles per year, would need to be battery-powered, since no other form of propulsion qualifies as "zero emission."
Auto makers vehemently oppose the mandate because they say that consumers won't accept the shortcomings of battery-powered vehicles. Using current technology, today's battery-powered cars still have an average range of about 70 miles in warm climates and about half that in colder regions. Recharge time is still about five or six hours, they say. And the cost of a battery-powered car is, on average, $21,817 more than for a comparably sized vehicle with an internal combustion engine, according to CARB's studies.
Only 3,500 battery-powered vehicles have been sold since 1993. "If we can only sell 3,500 vehicles in nearly a decade, how in the world could we ever sell 22,000 per year?" asked Frank Bohanon of the Specialty Equipment Market Association, an automotive industry support group.
As electric vehicles stall, sales of a new class of hybrid electric cars is moving forward. Citing forecasts compiled by the Energy Information Administration, government officials said they expect hybrid electric vehicles to seize almost 7 percent of the world market by 2020.
One point on which auto makers and government officials agree is that technology remains the crux of the problem with battery-powered cars. Despite decades of research, electric-vehicle (EV) batteries still lack the energy density needed to make electric cars competitive. The average energy density of today's vehicle batteries is still about 70 watt-hours/kilogram (1 Wh/kg translates to about one mile of range for a four-passenger sedan). A decade ago, auto makers had hoped that EV batteries would offer energy densities approaching 300 Wh/kg by the turn of the century.
Battery makers have had high hopes for a succession of technologies including advanced lead-acid, nickel-metal hydride, lithium-ion, sodium-sulfur, nickel-iron, zinc-air and zinc-nickel oxide but virtually all have hit snags. Those that offered high energy often suffered from corrosion, material instability or unwanted reactions. "If you're going to achieve the kind of energy we need, then you're going to need some very aggressive reactions," Toyota's Hermance said.
Automotive engineers at the conference also said today's EV batteries lack the cost-effectiveness needed to make electric vehicles more competitive. That's not surprising, they said, because the cost goal for automotive batteries is far more demanding than for, say, cell phones or notebook computers.
The U.S. Advanced Battery Consortium determined that EV batteries would have to achieve a cost goal of $150 per kilowatt-hour if they were to be competitive. In contrast, cell phone users typically pay about $1,000/kW-hr for a battery, while notebook computer users pay about $5,000/kW-hr.
Cackette of CARB noted that automation of nickel-metal-hydride EV batteries could bring the cost to $250/kW-hr. Given enough volume, he said, battery makers could lower the cost of a 1,000-pound nickel-metal-hydride battery pack to between $9,000 and $13,000 apiece.
Auto makers countered that $250/kW-hr isn't low enough and that $150/kW-hr, even if attainable, might still be too high. Many said that a $100/kW-hr cost must be attained if the technology is to be truly competitive.
Hermance said he sees little hope on the horizon for a technical breakthrough. "CARB commissioned a team of the world's foremost battery experts to search for the right technology, and they concluded that today's batteries are as good as it gets," he said. "What you have now is what you will still have for the next five or six years."
Automotive industry representatives said they hope to convince CARB to let them develop other technologies. "Our view is that CARB should back away from the mandates and let us put research money into fuel cells," said Gregory Dana, vice president of environmental affairs for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers (Washington). "For the long term, we feel that fuel cells are the best option."
Still, California officials say the state must solve its pollution problems in the short term, and the state's models are said to show that every purely electric car on the road reduces emissions by about 24 pounds over the life of the vehicle. Further, officials claimed their studies show that owner satisfaction is high among users of battery-powered cars.
CARB representatives also said they have already given auto makers leeway in meeting their regulations. The state's original mandates called for 10 percent of vehicles to meet zero-emission status, they say. But CARB backed off the original mandate two years ago, instead calling for 4 percent to achieve zero emissions and 6 percent to achieve so-called super-ultralow-emission vehicle status, which could be accomplished with cleaner gasoline-burning engines.
If California plans to let the mandates stand as is, auto makers will know by early next month. That would give them time to start gearing up for production of 2003 vehicles, Cackette noted. "We're examining three possibilities," he explained. "We can keep the mandates intact, get rid of them or do something in between those two extremes."
Auto makers say they will have a tough time meeting the mandate if it is not altered. GM has already discontinued its EV1 and S-10 EV programs. Honda and DaimlerChrysler have also discontinued programs.
Auto makers nonetheless acknowledged that if the mandate remains intact, they will have no choice but to comply. "No manufacturer will let itself be put in a situation where it has to pay a penalty to the state," Hermance said. "But we can't simply absorb all those costs. Those costs will have to be passed along to our gasoline-burning products."