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?

The Province - - DRIVING - DAVID BOOTH

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:

MULTI-PLAT­FORM PLAN

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.

— GETTY IM­AGES FILES

GM chief ex­ec­u­tive Mary Barra in­tro­duces the Chevy Bolt in 2016 in Las Ve­gas.

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