MOTOR MOUTH: IS GM’S EV MANDATE PROPOSAL A GOOD THING?
As jurisdictions move away from subsidies, what would a comprehensive EV mandate look like?
For all of the skeptics who believe traditional automakers are dragging their feet in the transformation to electric mobility, Mary Barra’s recent op-ed in USA Today must come as a stiff rebuke. Essentially, General Motors’ chief executive called for a U.S. federal mandate for zero emissions vehicles (ZEV), laying out the how (a further development of credits now offered by individual states), the target (seven per cent ZEVs by 2021, a two-percent increase per year after that) and its effect (a cumulative reduction of 375 million tons of CO2 emissions between 2021 and 2030).
It’s a brave move, considering the Trump administration essentially has dismissed global warming as “fake news,” is actively promoting fossil fuels, and has announced its intention to challenge the California Air Resources Board’s authority to regulate greenhouse gases.
So, was Barra’s proposition brave? Absolutely! For a company with profits still largely tied to internal combustion to risk the ire of this president for an EV future that is still uncertain takes what my dear departed Scottish grandmother would have called “pluck.”
However, it’s still motivated by the selling of automobiles. GM currently sells the Chevy Bolt and Volt, and soon will have a plug-in version of the Cadillac CT6 in dealerships. But that’s small fry compared with the 20 EVs it plans to unveil in the next 20 years. And unlike other traditional automakers that have promised to “electrify” their fleets — just a clever way of promoting hybrids and PHEVs in their press releases — all 20 of those new GMs will be purely electric.
So, as laudable as Barra’s boldness is, it’s still motivated by sales and profits. What’s required, if we really are going to adopt everything electric, is a plan that goes beyond the individual corporation’s profit mandate and the typical politician’s “here’s me taking action” incentives. What’s needed is an actual plan. Unfortunately, for those who hate Big Government, that plan will requires huge federal commitment, far beyond Barra’s consumer rebates and subsidies for charging stations.
Indeed, government actions so far — in North America, at least — smack of incrementalism, the kind of toe-in-the-water commitment that allows governments to claim action but actually not have to make serious budget decisions. Offering $14,000 rebates, as Ontario did, may make bold headlines, but the total money involved, admittedly in the millions, is still minuscule enough — by Liberal government standards, at least! — that they can be plowed through without major policy debate.
Again, what’s needed, if we are really and truly committed to this zero-emissions future, is a far more grandiose (that should be read as expensive) initiative. Here’s a rough idea of what such a plan might look like:
Following a similar “gradual” implementation plan, the way forward will have to promote plug-in hybrids (which, for the time being, will also use some gasoline) and some level of hydrogen refuelling, most especially on the intracity highway network.
Consider this: Long-distance haulage will not use batteries during my lifetime. Elon Musk can swear up and down that the future of the 18-wheel semi is with lithium-ion batteries, but the basic payload problem is such that the batteries required for, say, a 800-kilometre range are so heavy that the trucker can’t haul enough product to make money.
Some companies, such as Nikola, have proposed fuel cell-powered semis and, taking a page from the Musk playbook, are already planning on building some 700 hydrogen refuelling stations to service the ZEV trucks of the future.
This would mean there would also be an infrastructure for future plug-in battery/fuel cell hybrid cars, which are probably the most convenient zero-emission alternative for the future.
In the meantime, PHEVs with enough range to rely on battery power alone in dense population centres could be promoted by offering increased subsidies on models with a minimum of 100 km of lithium-ion, and then further incentivized by making gasoline significantly more expensive in urban centres than intra-city routes.
THE PURELY BATTERYPOWERED ALTERNATIVE
If all cars are to be purely battery powered — Musk’s dream — then we are going to have to put away this recharging infrastructure model. Other than avoiding large one-time capital costs, being able to gradually phase in recharging stations offers no advantages.
Current fast chargers — 350 kilowatts — still take five or six times as long to recharge as gasoline-powered cars do to refuel, making long-distance travel extremely problematic. Charging stations quick enough to compete with the gas pump will have to be automated and will cost hundreds of thousands of dollars each. And as for those who contend — and I’m looking at you, rabid Tesla fans — there will be a 1,000-km-range car that we will never have to refuel on the highway, here’s a news flash: Even the folks in the business of building charging infrastructures don’t buy into that fantasy.
The solution is simply to eliminate recharging by building inductive charging right into our highways. With enough battery — again, say 100-km range — covering its urban use, an EV could go as far as it liked, charging as it went. As expensive as that may be — and we are talking about hundreds of billions of dollars — as my previous calculations indicate, it will be cheaper than building super-highrange EVs and the high-powered chargers to “refuel” them.
The truth remains that any plan to truly convert to ZEVs is going to require far more money and commitment than simply increasing sales credits. Mary Barra is to be applauded for her courage, but we need a far grander plan if we are serious about this ZEV movement.
GM chief executive Mary Barra introduces the Chevy Bolt in 2016 in Las Vegas.