Green Car Startups Battle Detroit Over Cali Policy

Update: Bummer. The California Resource Board voted to cut the number of zero-emission vehicles that auto makers would be required to produce to sell in Cali by 70 percent (to 7,500 for the three years from 2012 to 2014.) While that was less than its staff had originally recommended (to 2,500), it’s still a significant speed bump for the state’s electric vehicle startups.

Watching green car advocates and big Detroit debate the future of California’s “zero-emission vehicles” (ZEVs) policy in Sacramento on Thursday, was like watching a rerun of Who Killed the Electric Car — hopefully there isn’t the same outcome. Craig and I spent the better part of a day watching the live video-stream of a town-hall-style public hearing in front of the California Resource Board, and heard a slew of 3-minute testimonials from everyone from the major automakers, to startups like Tesla, and even Google.

At stake is no less than a major reduction in the number of zero-emission vehicles that auto makers would be required to produce to sell in Cali over the next few years. The CARB is considering (yet another) weakening of its ZEV policy, offering major concessions to the big auto makers, and causing trouble for younger startups that are building businesses off of electric vehicles.


Each of the big car makers seemed to have their own preferences and requests and the result was a battle of acronyms in the ZEV realm – BEVs (battery), PHEVs (plug-in), and FCVs (fuel cell) all had champions at the podium. And the ZEV Program does not treat all vehicles equally; there’s a gold, silver and bronze tier of categories which hold different weight.

There were three main camps of thought heard throughout the day. The most canned plea came from automakers, which included BMW, Mitsubishi, Volkswagen, Chrysler, GM, and Honda. Each company rep pleaded the case of whatever technology-specific endeavor their company had invested in. For BMW it was their hydrogen-powered 7 Series and for Mitsubishi it was a push for a special “ZEV credit multiplier” which garnered boos from the gallery. The ultimate request from the big auto folks was the further lowering and weakening of the ZEV mandates.

Meanwhile, the EV startups were on hand as a David to the auto industry’s Goliath. Tesla CEO Ze’ev Drori said that CARB’s assessment of the electric vehicle industry is “seriously flawed,” a point he’s made on his blog. Drori asked the audience if startups like Tesla can produce a full-fledged ZEV in five years why can’t the auto companies?

Phoenix Motorcars was also present to vouch for the existing CARB program. “The battery technology is here” a Phoenix spokesperson stressed, pointing out that the company, with manufacturing facilities in California would be starting production of its electric cars in April with the hopes of delivering 350 cars by the end of the year.

Green car fans also had their chance. Among the concerned citizenry were several ex-EV1 owners, one of whom accused GM of “infanticide” for killing the EV1 program. After listening to so many vested interests bemoaning their causes, it was refreshing to hear some third party players asking for technology neutral mandates to help rid California of its smog, supposedly the goal of CARB.

Photo courtesy of AP. Craig Rubens contributed to this report.

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