Science & Technology

Electric Go-Karts

The perverse consequences of California's sales quotas


Thanks to their state's push for zero-emission vehicles, Californians can get set for the next great leap forward in automotive luxury: golf carts sporting headlights, turn signals, and a top speed of 25 miles per hour. Such toy cars will help automakers meet the requirement that a set percentage of vehicles they sell in the Golden State be nonpolluting. Undeterred by its botched attempt at electricity deregulation, California is attempting to dictate vehicle design and production to the auto industry. All the more disturbing, the state's directives are actually harmful to the environment, are economically unfeasible, and are a threat to public safety.

Sacramento regulators have insisted for more than a decade that the improvements necessary to attain federal clean air standards can be achieved only by forcing automakers to produce battery-powered vehicles.

"The California Air Resources Board mandate," says David Hermance, executive engineer at the Toyota Technical Center in Gardena, California, "compels manufacturers to spend a tremendous amount of money on a technology that no one—not even CARB—believes will ever result in a mass-produced vehicle."

Elimination of the internal combustion engine remains the ZEV community's ultimate goal. But because current battery technology remains impractical, unaffordable, and therefore unmarketable, the only thing driving electric vehicle production is government fiat. Customers are understandably reluctant to buy a $35,000 vehicle that requires a five-hour recharge every 75 miles.

Market realities notwithstanding, CARB accuses the auto industry of willfully withholding Earth-friendly products in a relentless pursuit of profits. This disdain for automakers as despoilers of nature was expressed by board member William F. Friedman, who publicly scolded automakers in January by saying, "Progress will be made when we stick it to you."

By that yardstick, progress has been made: Failure to meet California's sales quotas can result in a $5,000 fine per unsold vehicle.

Such penalties will be felt by motorists nationwide. Internal-combustion vehicles are much more efficient than their electric cousins. Today, just the batteries for an electric car cost $30,000, while a gas-powered car's 20-gallon fuel tank costs just $20. (The true cost of ZEVs is not reflected in their price tags, as they are heavily subsidized.) Even assuming savings from mass production, an electric vehicle will cost many times more than a conventional car. Only by spreading the additional costs across the entire fleet can automakers clear ZEVs from dealers' lots.

In other words, it's a new auto tax. And to the extent that ZEV subsidies inflate sticker prices fleet-wide, a meaningful share of consumers will defer the purchase of new, cleaner conventional vehicles. A study by Resources for the Future, a nonpartisan environmental research group, predicts that this so-called "jalopy effect" will actually cause a net increase in auto emissions across California.

As electrics have bombed in the marketplace, CARB has tried to appear "flexible" by constructing a maze of credit-earning options for fulfilling the ZEV quotas. The most ludicrous would allow automakers to comply by marketing "neighborhood vehicles," better known as golf carts. Ford unveiled its neighborhood vehicle at last year's Detroit Auto Show, for use in closed communities and on roads with speed limits under 35 mph. DaimlerChrysler AG recently purchased cart maker Global Electric MotorCars. The golf carts have been exempted from federal safety standards, allowing them to travel on public roads.

Then there are vehicles like Ford's Think City, a tiny electric two-seater meant for the highway. Made of plastic, the car takes 30 seconds to reach a top speed of 60 mph—an unsafe prospect for merging on any freeway, but perhaps especially those in California. "What scares me is that once somebody puts one in the fast lane, they're going to be killed," says Toyota's Hermance, noting that freeway speeds in Los Angeles average between 70 and 75 miles per hour. In other words, regulators are willing to trade an increase in traffic fatalities for an inconsequential reduction in emissions.

Automotive technology has changed dramatically since California's sales quotas were first proposed a decade ago. CARB's own data show that conventional vehicles' emissions have declined 80 percent since 1990. In smog-prone Los Angeles, the number of ozone "exceedences" has declined from 190 in 1982 to a mere 40 last year, despite an exponential increase in the number of vehicles on the roads and the miles they are driven. Stricter tailpipe controls will also be in place by 2003, which would further narrow the now-marginal emissions gap between electric and conventional vehicles. But CARB stubbornly ignores both scientific and economic evidence that discredits its pet regulatory scheme.

A competitive alternative to gasoline will likely one day emerge. Auto-makers see potential for hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles, for example, though their viability is still some years away. But to the extent that automakers are forced to divert money into electrics, research on more promising alternatives will be compromised. If one day you find yourself trying to merge a plastic cart onto a L.A. freeway, think a bit about that.