EVs are still the “Gold Standard”
By Mike Wirsch

Electric Transportation Manager
Sacramento Municipal Utility District

[Article reprinted courtesy of Julee Malinowski-Ball <jmball@ns.net>. The article was originally published in Fall 1999 edition of "EV Califorinia" a quarterly publication of the California Electric Transportation Coalition (CalETC). Thanks to Shirley McCart, our webmaster, for reading about it in a Zapworld.com press release. Remy C. ET Ed.]

Despite dire pronouncements by some critics, zero-emission electric vehicles (EVs) are alive and well, and still the “gold standard” when it comes to emissions, efficiency, and lower fuel and maintenance costs. Automakers have even more to brag about in terms of producing a product that appeals to more and more consumers. Today’s EVs offer vehicles with greater technological advancements than ever before, allowing the EV market to continue to grow—although virtually unnoticed.

The technological progress made by EVs in recent years has been nothing short of revolutionary, with some automakers producing a new generation of more advanced EV technologies with far fewer parts, reduced weight, and reduced cost. General Motor’s Director of Advanced Technology Vehicles, Robert Purcell, touts how General Motors’ electric drive technology is setting the standard: “EV1’s next electric propulsion system, due out next year, will be one quarter the cost, size and complexity of the first one in 1996, with double the range between charges: 140 miles.” The US Department of Energy, which has conducted performance tests on all major EVs since 1994, confirms that EVs have made constant improvement over the past five years in all areas tested, including increases in range, speed, acceleration, and payload.

Some may argue this is the expected pattern which has been set by many new electronic technologies, including personal computers, cellular phones, satellite TVs, VCRs, CDs, DVDs, and many other products that are now so familiar that they have alphabet-soup names we all recognize. However, EV stakeholders are quick to point out that it took more than a dozen years for some of these technological advancements to penetrate only 25 percent of the consumer market. EV market advancements are still on track.

By meeting the high expectations of both consumers and automakers in terms of technological advances, EV sightings are now a common occurrence in California’s urban areas. California’s current program of “demonstration marketing” has placed approximately 1,700 EVs on California’s roadways, and many automakers have met their sales/lease goals in half the time expected.

Unfortunately, the progress of EVs does not make the media headlines. The automotive trade press, in particular, appears to relish selective reporting on innocuous events coupled with their own “we told you so” doomsday proclamations about EVs. Case in point: in 1996 the California Air Resources Board (CARB) signed agreements with each of the major automakers, requiring them to produce a certain number of EVs in California from 1998 through 2000. Honda not only introduced their EV PLUS earlier than required, it leased all 300 vehicles to enthusiastic owners by the spring of 1999 – almost two years ahead of the CARB requirement. The trade press reported on this significant achievement with the headline “Honda pulls the plug on EV PLUS,” not bothering to examine the obvious success of the EV PLUS with consumers and fleet owners.

A more significant, but unreported, story is that of Toyota which had a higher requirement under the CARB agreement than Honda (322 EVs), and not only met this goal before Honda, but went on to lease their popular RAV4 EV in a handful of other states for a total of over 500 vehicles by the spring of 1999. Toyota continues to manufacture and lease a limited number of RAV4 EVs even though there is no requirement that they do so. The 1999 vehicles are sold-out and there is a waiting list for next year’s production.

Today, headlines should read that there is a significant unmet demand for not just the EV PLUS and the RAV-4, but the nickel metal hydride EV1, as well as other EVs with advanced batteries. Ford, for example, has experienced first-hand the interest in EVs when it announced a special reduced price for its Ranger EV to educational institutions. Not only did they sell-out for their 1999 CARB requirement, they have oversubscribed the incentive well into their 2000 requirements. By far, the biggest “problem” with EVs today is their lack of availability.

In recent weeks, hybrid-electric vehicles have been the subject of a major advertising campaign, and the subject of many trade press articles which portray them as offering the benefits of a pure EV but without the “inconvenience” of recharging or limited range. But do these hybrids really provide the same benefits as pure EVs? None of the press articles so far actually compare emissions, efficiency, fuel cost, maintenance, or many other factors consumers and businesses care about.

A true comparison of emissions benefits, using the hybrid Honda Insight as an example, shows that its emissions are about the same as a gasoline powered Honda Accord, which meets California’s standards for Ultra-Low Emission Vehicles. Pure EVs produce less than 1 percent of the emissions of the Insight, even when powerplant emissions and similar “upstream” emissions from gasoline vehicles are included.

The emissions benefits from the pure EV are so much larger than the Insight, there really is no comparison. This is why EVs continue to be the “gold standard” in terms of emissions. Nothing else even comes close.

Pure EVs are also more efficient than the 70 mpg Insight, with even lower fuel costs to consumers. On $1 of “fuel” the Insight will go a bit over 40 miles, but the General Motors EV1 will go 80 miles - almost twice as far!

Don’t get me wrong. Hybrid-EVs are an extremely promising technology, both for reducing air pollution and saving consumers money. But hybrids need to be specifically designed to achieve these goals. The way to do this is to design hybrids which give consumers an option to plug-in and recharge them at night or at public charging stations, and should be offered a vehicle design that will operate with some all-electric range, even if it is only 20-30 miles. Also, the more efficient battery-dominant hybrid like the one currently being developed at the University of California, Davis, would charge from California's clean energy grid, utilize more batteries and, if successful in the market, would drive down the cost of batteries for both EVs and hybrids. Hybrids designed in this manner will provide much greater benefits to California and to their owners in terms of emission and cost savings than the hybrids being advertised today.

Why are these comparisons so important to make and report on? California has the worst air pollution in the nation. Ninety percent of all Californians live in areas that do not meet federal or state standards for healthy air. Seventy-five percent of urban air pollution comes from mobile sources, primarily cars and trucks. California needs the cleanest vehicle technologies now and in the future in order to meet its State Implementation Plan for air quality.

The Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) is committed to protecting the environment and to provide clean healthy air for our citizens. SMUD has been a leader in electric transportation since 1990, working to make Northern California “EV Ready” and ensure a successful EV market. SMUD’s Electric Transportation programs and services include: residential and commercial EV charger installation; free EV loans for interested fleets; public charging infrastructure installation and servicing; and EV technology development.

SMUD is proud of the progress that EVs have made in the past nine years, and proud of our role in this accomplishment. Clearly more needs to be done, particularly through programs which reduce technology cost and increase production volumes, information and outreach efforts to fleets and consumers, eco-nomic incentives for vehicles and infrastructure, and increased public charging facilities. No one ever said that solving California’s air pollution problem was going to be easy – there is no “silver bullet.” However, clearer than ever before, the reality is that EVs and other forms of electric transportation are and will continue to play a major role in the solution. Let us not lose focus of these goals until the job is done.

Air Pollution Comparison
Electric vs. Gasoline Vehicles

1. Lifetime “real-world” emissions for vehicles in the South Coast Air Basin, including fuel-cycle emissions for both electricity and gasoline (in kilograms).

(2) Calculation based on the Union of Concerned Scientist 1994 study comparing ULEV emission to EVs, using 27.5 mpg.

(3) Calculation based on Union of Concerned Scientist 1994 study using the Insight’s advertised 70 mpg.