CARB: 54.5 mpg CAFE not enough to spur EV technologies

Image: DanSperling CARB-2.JPG

The transition to electrified vehicles is proving to be "precarious," Dr. Daniel Sperling of the CARB told the SAE symposium audience February 11. (Lindsay Brooke)

U.S. vehicle fuel economy rules that mandate a 54.5-mpg fleet average by 2025 are insufficient to stimulate major investments in zero-emission electrified vehicles, including battery electrics and those powered by fuel cells, a member of America’s most powerful air-quality regulatory group told the 2014 SAE Hybrid & EV Symposium audience on February 11.

“I’m starting to hear more and more talk about carbon taxes in the California legislature,” noted Dr. Daniel Sperling, a member of the California Air Resources Board (CARB) who kicked off the three-day SAE event in La Jolla, CA. He said the primary rationale for plug-in and hybrid vehicle development has shifted from the “end of oil” threat to one hinged on climate change, and that shift presents a greater challenge for policymakers and engineers alike.

“Vast quantities of fossil fuels are now being extracted at reasonable cost,” Dr. Sperling noted, prompting consumer interest in EVs to cool while the industry focuses on conventional solutions, such as high-volume adoption of lightweight materials (i.e. Ford’s aluminum-intensive 2015 F-150) plus advanced combustion systems, new transmissions, and improved aerodynamics. These alternatives are significantly raising vehicle fuel efficiency, he said, while typically less costly than those related to zero-emission vehicles (ZEV).

And with the possible exception of full-size trucks, meeting the 54.5-mpg fleet target will not be an overly difficult task, most experts believe.

Because of the comparatively high cost of batteries, traction motors, power control, and charging systems, it would take an estimated outlay of $150 billion to achieve rough cost parity with conventional ICE vehicles by 2025, according to a University of California-Davis analysis cited by Dr. Sperling. The cost of both types won’t likely converge until 2050, he said, when production scale and systems innovations for plug-ins are realized.

Nonetheless, he is certain that California, the nation’s largest vehicle market, will not back down from its so-called “ZEV mandate” requiring 15% of the vehicles sold there by 2025 to have battery electric or hydrogen fuel-cell powertrains. Eight other states are following California’s ZEV rule, representing in total nearly one-third of all U.S. new-vehicle sales. Dr. Sperling predicted that the ZEV mandate will be sustained through the EPA’s mid-term review of CAFE policy, scheduled for early 2018.

CARB, whose 12 members are appointed by California’s governor, is widely considered to be the world’s most powerful group regulating vehicle emissions. Dr. Sperling is Director of the Institute of Transportation Studies, and professor of Civil Engineering and Environmental Science and Policy at UC-Davis. He is author of the 2009 book, Two Billion Cars.

He admitted a “danger in adopting aggressive new regulations" without consumer demand for the products being shaped by those laws. He surprised some among the nearly 220 engineers in the SAE audience when he asserted that in order to grow the electrified-vehicle market, sales must expand beyond “the rich early adopters” and also migrate into the used-car market. Charging stations will have to be implemented at workplaces and apartment complexes, he said.

Short-to-midterm solutions for accelerating vehicle electrification listed by Dr. Sperling include increased use of “feebate” policies, including expanding vehicle purchase incentives financed through cap-and-trade revenues.

Longer term, California Senate Bill (SB) 375, adopted in 2008, is aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions from passenger vehicles by reducing per capita vehicle miles traveled (VMT). This policy is based on three strategies: Pricing policies that raise the cost of driving and parking; investments in alternatives to solo driving such as carpooling, bicycling, and walking; and higher-density housing and business development in areas served by transit.

SB 375 is not without controversy. Studies show that ridership trends for California’s mass-transit systems have been disappointing, relative to the billions invested in the sector since 1990. The state’s overall share of commuters using transit grew from 5% percent to 5.5% between 1990 and 2008. More than 76% of all commuters still drive alone to work even if they live or work near a transit station.

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