Clean Vehicles: When?

Clean Vehicles: When?

By Drs. Robert and Sonia Vogl, President and Vice President Illinois Renewable Energy Association

Part 1: The Context

When we were graduate students at the University of Michigan in the early 1970s, we heard prominent environmentalists call for the demise of the internal combustion engine and lessening our reliance on the automobile for personal transportation. A group of students buried a new car to symbolize the need to end our auto dependency. While a car was buried, the car culture flourished.

A professor of our environmental law class pointed out that Congress had

lost faith in the auto industry’s claim that fuel efficiency was not cost effective, and was on the verge of mandating fuel efficiency standards. Over a 10-year period federal mandates essentially doubled the fuel efficiency of auto fleets from 14 to 28 miles per gallon.

In 1980, David Freeman, now chairman of the California Power Authority, received a letter from the president of General Motors informing him that electric cars would be in all their car showrooms by l984. It never happened.

By 1990, to clean up severe air pollution, California passed a Zero Emissions Vehicle (ZEV) standard calling for 2 percent of the autos sold in the state to be either electrically powered or run on hydrogen instead of fossil fuels. The original target date of 1998 was postponed until 2003. The mandate did produce a temporary spurt of activity in the manufacture of electric vehicles. Over the years, we had the opportunity to test drive many of the available electric vehicles in the marketplace and were pleasantly surprised by their performance, comfort and quality.

An especially appealing two-seat sports car was General Motors’ EV1. It accelerated dramatically, allowing it to blend into expressway traffic with ease. The vehicle could not be purchased; it was available only on lease in California to individuals with incomes above $100,000 a year. The car was only made for two years and, as leases expire, car users are required to return them to General Motors. Although substantial sums were invested in the car’s development, critics claim the marketing strategy of General Motors appeared designed to fail.

We, too, were surprised by an automotive engineer’s comment to us regarding another firm’s electric car after we test drove it. He let us know the only reason they built it was to demonstrate to the public that it would not meet their transportation needs.

While the original ZEV mandate was postponed, California continues to try to use mandates to force automotive manufacturers to make clean cars. However, recent efforts to curb carbon dioxide releases are being challenged by both the auto industry and the federal government.

As covered by Jeff Havens in his recent article on the demise of the Supercar program from the Clinton administration, the effort to make a commercially viable 80 mile per gallon family sedan also failed.

With the promise of expanded hybrid vehicle options, the increased presence of biofuels, and increased Federal funding for fuel cell powered vehicles, a transition to cleaner cars seems underway. The question remains: Will it succeed?

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