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Extended Interview: Mary Nichols, California Air Resources Board

June 25, 2008 at 12:00 AM EDT

SPENCER MICHELS: Essentially, didn’t the board reduce the number of electric vehicles that are going to be required in California?

MARY NICHOLS: We actually increased the number of plug-in vehicles that will be required in California, but to do that we traded off some of the pure electrics for the plug-ins. And we did that for the simple reason that we need to make a quick transition to a much larger number of vehicles and we need to get the public used to buying and using these cars for all purposes, not just as a niche market.

There are electric vehicles out there available for sale today, and they’re good cars for people who want them as a commuter vehicle or as a second vehicle or a town car, and they’re perfectly fine cars. But the purpose of this program is to mandate the big companies, the General Motors, the Fords, the Toyotas, to start selling us cars that run mostly on electricity or all-electric drive in the future. And to do that you’ve got to reach the mass market, not just the early adopters or the committed environmentalists.

SPENCER MICHELS: Well, some of the people who criticized that decision said you were taking a step backwards, that your whole effort in the past has been to push these manufacturers and now you’re letting them off the hook.

MARY NICHOLS: Well, actually we’re pushing them pretty hard. I think if you talk to the car companies, none of them will tell you that they’re confident that they can meet the volume. We’re talking about roughly 66,000 plug-in vehicles being sold in California by the year 2012, which as you know, actually model year 2012 is just a couple years around the corner. None of those vehicles are being offered for sale today. Zero. So that is a very fast ramp up for the industry.

But the point is, it’s a transition. What we’re trying to do is to popularize the concept that you plug in your car when you get to work or when you come home at night. You don’t go to the gas station. But in order to do that we have to get people over the hump of being worried that they’re not going to be able to make it if they have to go a longer distance, they need to run a couple of errands, if they happen to be in an area where there aren’t any easily available public charging stations. And to do that, you need a little bit of a gas motor. It’s kind of like training wheels on a bicycle to get people used to the idea that the future is going to be all electric. I think that makes more sense from a regulatory point of view. I mean our mission is to try to get these cars out there in vast numbers. It’s not to punish the car companies.

SPENCER MICHELS: Well some people don’t buy that, though. As you know, the electric car folks say it’s a retreat and it’s going to hurt them in terms of what they’re developing. Is that possible too?

MARY NICHOLS: No, I don’t think so, because the electric car companies today that sell the pure electric vehicles are finding their own market. The Tesla is going to people who can afford a $100,000 absolutely gorgeous sports car with great acceleration that you just use for a high performance car, you know, and looks great in your neighborhood and in your driveway.

People who want a small town car or a neighborhood electric vehicle can find a neighborhood electric vehicle. This program is only focused on one element of the total car market.

We also are moving now towards a complete overhaul of the whole California vehicle program. We’re getting, pushing everybody towards lower and lower and zero-emission vehicles in the years to come because by 2020, we’re actually going to need a vehicle fleet that’s all-electric drive train. Everything.

But you know, one of the problems that we face is there are battles between the technology enthusiasts, so the battery people hate the hydrogen people and the hydrogen people hate the battery people and they’re firing salvos at each other over who’s about to sell us out to some foreign competitor or another, and we’re trying to stay above that fray. We believe that in the future we’re going to need the plug-ins, we’re going to need the pure electrics and we’re going to need hydrogen vehicles, fuel cell vehicles. We’re going to need them all if we’re going to cut emissions to the level that we need to cut them.

SPENCER MICHELS: Where are we right now? What’s available? You can buy an electric car today and some of them get quite a bit of range. Why not go for that?

MARY NICHOLS: Why not? If you want one you can buy one, but our job isn’t to mandate the manufacturers to sell you a car that you don’t want to buy. The whole purpose of this program is to force a market for a limited number of the very best vehicles that are not out there today. And what’s not out there today is a mass market family car for people who have to take kids, or grandparents, to the doctors or to school, who have to run errands, who need the trunk space, who might want to take a weekend trip, all of those things and who want to do it at an affordable price. So that’s where we’re pushing the market right now.

SPENCER MICHELS: What is the incentive at this point for the big manufacturers to go for an all-electric vehicle if they don’t really have to? What’s going to force them to do that? And you used the word force.

MARY NICHOLS: Consumer demand eventually will push them in that direction if there are enough cars to be sold. But one of the things we’re seeing now and what’s interesting I think about the electricity market, about the car market, I should say, the auto market, is that there are more companies springing up that are available to do the single purpose or niche market car. They’re making them available, if they become profitable then you can bet the big guys are going to buy them up or they’re going to start copying them and manufacturing their product.

Right now what people are buying are hybrids, which is great. The hybrids are popular although they’re a little more expensive than conventional gasoline vehicles, but people are beginning to see that they are both green and, as the price of gasoline goes up, they’re also a good buy — so people are willing to spend a little extra to get a hybrid. The next step is, we want that hybrid running on electricity most of the time. And then pretty soon we’ll get to the point where the batteries are better manufactured, they’re better quality, and you can run on electricity all the time and still enjoy all the comforts that you enjoy in a car today.

SPENCER MICHELS: What is the role of global warming in this as opposed to smog? Can you tell me that?

MARY NICHOLS: Sure. When we started the zero emission vehicle program, it was only focused on conventional air pollution, on smog, and California’s need — which is never-ending — to face the fact that we have more and more people, and more and more vehicles, driving more and so we had to cut the emissions down to near zero or zero.

What we’re seeing today is that we have to look at totally different fuels and technologies because of global warming, and we now have a mandate from our legislature. A bill signed by the governor that requires us to slash our emissions of greenhouse gases, which in effect means that you have to replace the conventional internal combustion engine and/or use totally different clean fuels. And the direction that we’re having then is an electric drive train powered either by a battery or by a fuel cell, some type of energy storage device that then gets recharged from an essentially zero pollution source, which will mean renewable energy. That’s where we’re headed.

SPENCER MICHELS: What do you think California’s role is, in the nation and in the world, in leading technology or pushing it?

MARY NICHOLS: California has always been a pioneer in showcasing new technologies. That’s why all the major auto companies have design facilities in California and use us as a test market for their most advanced thinking about cars.

People in California, by and large, love cars. They also depend on cars, are interested in cars. If you ever go to the LA auto show you can see a great cross section of people there just because it’s an enjoyable thing to do.

But our job at the Air Resources Board, as a governmental agency, is to push the manufacturers to be greener than they would otherwise. The space that we’re trying to occupy is that gap between what’s in the designer’s imagination and what is actually produced in quantity and sold in the marketplace. That’s where we feel that using a mandate with a limited tool we can really make a difference without completely interfering with all that free market enthusiasm that we appreciate here.

SPENCER MICHELS: I want to go back to what we were talking about at the beginning briefly. You have a certain push that you can give to these manufacturers. With the law you can spur them along and you’re saying, you know, there was a retreat a little bit. Isn’t that going to hurt the electric car industry? Isn’t it going to slow it down, even while it’s pushing ahead say hybrids and plug-ins?

MARY NICHOLS: If I thought that what we were doing was going to hurt the advance of the electric vehicle, I never would have voted for this regulation. And I don’t believe my fellow board members would have either.

We looked at all the facts of where the companies are now, where the technology is, where the suppliers are, where the batteries are, what’s going on with the fuel cells. They have plug-ins that are on the drawing board, and we said to ourselves, where can we make the biggest bang with our regulator initiative? And we thought that it was by pushing in the market towards greater and greater electrification.

The choice is between a few thousand pure electric vehicles, which is what the mandate would have required, versus almost three times that many plug-in electric vehicles. From an emissions perspective, we’re getting more reduction in greenhouse gases, we’re getting more reduction in smog. So the only argument here is whether it’s better to go for a pure electric vehicle with its limitations, but the fact that it’s 100 percent battery; versus whether it’s better to go through a transition phase where we get people into a battery car that operates on the battery most of the time but has that little extra bit of a gasoline motor there to get you over the mountains or off to the Las Vegas or the beach or wherever it is you need to go, and gives you the security that you’re able to go where you need to go.

SPENCER MICHELS: Do you see a time when most of the cars, all of the cars will be pollution free or all running on electricity or fuel cells? What do you see?

MARY NICHOLS: I think what we’re going to get to is a near zero vehicle. The goal is zero, of course, is perfection, but the fact is, you need to look at it on what we now call a well-to-wheels basis. So with an electric vehicle you look at the charging system. With a hydrogen vehicle you look at how the hydrogen was produced. With a plug-in you have to look at how much it’s using its battery versus how much it’s using its gasoline motor or whatever the alternate fuel is and try to do a fair comparison. Every one of them is going to have probably a little bit of emissions left at the end of the day, but we’re trying to drive that down so that every piece of the system is renewable. That’s where we’re trying to go and we’ll need them all in the future.

SPENCER MICHELS: What are you driving?

MARY NICHOLS: I drive a Honda, it’s a hybrid.

SPENCER MICHELS: Oh good, all right.

[Auto companies] say you’re pushing too hard.

MARY NICHOLS: Well, we have a pretty good track record in California, I think, of listening to the concerns of the auto companies, evaluating what they can do, pushing them harder than their comfort level. So we’ll see at the end of the day, but we’re quite confident that they can make it to these levels. The board did take the staff proposal and we upped it, actually we tripled the mandate that the staff had proposed to us. They were concerned that we might be pushing the companies too hard, but in between the time that the staff report came out and the time that the board acted, we got some new information about the quality of the batteries. I think the auto companies themselves have been marketing their future plans for the green vehicles and especially for the plug-ins, and we evaluated all their testimony and we concluded that they could come up with these high numbers, but you know if we’re successful, as I believe we will be, you’re going to see a lot of plug-in vehicles out there on the road.

SPENCER MICHELS: Did auto companies push you on this as well?

MARY NICHOLS: Oh yes, we met with the companies. We met individually with all of the big companies, they’re subject to the rule as well as with many of the smaller EV manufacturers, electric vehicle manufacturers, fuel cell advocates, environmental groups, we had on the record literally hundreds of meetings with all these different advocacy groups before coming to a final decision after our big public hearing.

Transition or step backwards?

Currently available cars

California's role

Looking to the future