‘Unpopular car’ problem? Carmakers’ lobby groups fight California Zero-Emission Vehicle mandate

Fiat 500e by a bridgeIn January, California lawmakers passed legislation requiring carmakers to sell 1.4 million plug-in hybrid, battery-electric (EV) and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles in the Golden State by 2025. Now, the car companies are asking the EPA to intervene and change the requirements.

According to Automotive News (sub. required), the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers and the Association of Global Automakers, the two largest auto industry lobbying groups, filed a petition against the California Zero-Emission Vehicle (ZEV) mandate.

The petition says that the carmakers represented by the two groups supported the upcoming federal 54.5 mpg CAFE mandate, but that they want the EPA to tell California to change its rule.

The carmakers say that, even if they built enough vehicles to satisfy the mandate, people might not buy them.

“It is impossible to predict today whether infrastructural developments, oil prices, consumer confidence and other factors will converge such that automakers will be able to persuade buyers to choose” electric, hybrid, or hydrogen cars, the petition says.

Supporters of the ZEV mandate believe it will force carmakers to develop more efficient vehicles, which the carmakers don’t seem to dispute. In a hyperbolic example, the petition argues that the mandate could force them to build unpopular cars.

“If California were to require that one-half of an auto manufacturer’s sales in the state consist of two-door subcompact hatchbacks with 4-speed manual transmissions by 2018… that standard would not be feasible because the motoring public will not purchase that many vehicles with those characteristics.”

While most new hybrids and EVs seem more appealing than a Daewoo Lanos or Geo Metro, there have already been some examples of automakers cynically building cars just to comply with the mandate. Cars like the Fiat 500e and Scion iQ EV are too small to be practical, and won’t be widely available.

Although the California ZEV mandate won’t take effect until 2018, the carmakers are fighting it because other states are looking to follow California’s lead. With nine states poised to pass mandates of their own, carmakers would have to sell 600,000 ZEVs nationwide in 2025 to comply.