Automakers say consumers hold the key to zero-emission vehicle mandates

Source: Debra Kahn, E&E reporter • Posted: Monday, June 2, 2014

Major targets for zero-emission vehicle (ZEV) deployment on the East and West coasts require consumer participation to become a reality, automakers are saying.

California and Oregon, along with Massachusetts, New York and four other East Coast states, this week fleshed out their target of 3.3 million zero-emission vehicles by 2025, announced last October and detailed in an action plan yesterday.The plan calls for consumer incentives, like reduced tolls and access to high-occupancy vehicle lanes; more charging stations and lower barriers to finding them; rates for charging vehicles that are competitive with gasoline; and government- and company-backed ZEV fleets.

The policies are intended to amplify the current upswing in electric vehicle purchases, bringing them from less than 1 percent of total sales today to 15 percent of new-car sales in the eight states by 2025.

In March 2013, industry groups pushed back against California’s program, asking U.S. EPA to deny a waiver from the Clean Air Act because fueling infrastructure and consumer demand made the mandate infeasible (ClimateWire, March 13, 2013).

Now, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which represents 12 automakers, including BMW, Chrysler, Ford Motor Co., General Motors Co. and Toyota, is taking a slightly different tack. Last week, the group unveiled a new consumer-focused website that it began working on immediately after the pact was announced last year.

The website has a map of 8,184 charging stations around the country and a list of electric vehicles and their ranges. It also seeks to make clear that the automakers have done their part: “Now that so many zero emission vehicles are on dealer lots, success in achieving the ZEV mandate is dependent on sales to customers.”

ZEVs are being made; now they have to be bought

Previous rounds of regulations have focused on getting automakers to ramp up their production, which has now happened, an industry representative said. Twenty-two plug-in EV models from nine manufacturers are expected to be available in 2014 in at least some of the states, according to the action plan, while one hydrogen fuel-cell model is currently available for lease in California, with another two models expected next year.

“That’s not the issue anymore; the issue is getting consumers to buy them,” said AAM spokeswoman Gloria Bergquist. “Starting with the states; we need the states to buy them for their fleets.”

The ZEV program, as it is known, is not new; it’s been around in some form or another since 1990, when California set an initial target of 2 percent of major automakers’ production by 1998 and 10 percent by 2003, which was eventually scaled back. California originated the 2025 target in 2012, and the other states — Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island and Vermont — joined last year (ClimateWire, Oct. 25, 2013).

The head of California’s climate agency, Mary Nichols, said that the market would take off with additional policies and increased industry competition but that she couldn’t predict what would be needed in the long term.

“Once the consumers have an opportunity to evaluate technologies, this market is going to take over,” she said. “We have to take efforts in the early stages because we’re looking at a big transformation, there’s no question about that. … I don’t think we have to have seen our way completely to the end to see what we need to do to get started.”

She said that manufacturers like Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, whose chairman, Sergio Marchionne, complained last week about losing money on sales of the electric Fiat500e, would eventually have a successful market for their cars.

“It just reminds me of where we were a decade ago or so with Toyota and their commitment they made on the Prius,” she said, which has now sold more than 6 million units worldwide. “They don’t normally turn a profit as quickly as everyone would like, but through a sustained commitment and having superior technology, they will have a successful market.”

Educating dealers to beef up sales

The other major trade group, Global Automakers, which includes Honda, Nissan, Subaru and Ferrari among its 12 members, also stressed the role that consumers have to play.

“Automakers are committed to the success of ZEV technology and have invested billions of dollars in the development and deployment of these vehicles,” said President and CEO John Bozzella. “However, consumers are ultimately in the driver’s seat. So preparing the market by addressing challenges and assessing state’s progress is critical to meeting the ultimate goal of increased consumer acceptance of ZEVs.”

“The vehicles have come a long way, the technology has come a long way, and there are more offerings for the vehicles than there ever have been in the past,” said Luke Tonachel, senior analyst with the Natural Resources Defense Council’s transportation program. “That’s helped grow awareness among consumers.”

Still, dealers can do more, he said. He pointed to a Consumer Reports study released last month that found salespeople at some dealerships — notably Honda and Toyota — were uninformed about their plug-in offerings and had relatively limited numbers of cars available.

“More could be done, for example, in educating the dealers on the value of the vehicles and helping consumers make good choices that are right for them,” he said.