TCS Daily


Four-Part Fallacy Fuels Foolish Zero-Emissions' Mandate

By Kenneth Green - March 5, 2001 12:00 AM

Finally, General Motors has decided to take California's Air Resources Board (CARB) to court over the zero-emission vehicle (ZEV) mandate. It's a suit long overdue, since the mandate is shockingly bad policy, particularly for those who want to clean the air more than they want to usher in the age of dressed-up golf carts.

Passed in 1991, The ZEV mandate called for 2 percent of automaker sales to be zero-emission vehicles by 1998, scaling up to 5 percent by 2001, and 10 percent by 2003. CARB claimed the mandate was an emission standard, not a technology standard. But CARB has never certified anything other than a pure electric vehicle as "zero-emissions," making the ZEV mandate a de facto technology standard. In the face of failure, CARB has twice scaled the mandate back. It's also cut deals with automakers to delay the inevitable recognition that electric vehicle technology isn't ready for prime time, and probably won't be for another decade. But regulators rarely admit error. And all the way along, CARB has defended the ZEV mandate with the same old technocratic song, performed in four-part fallacy.

First, CARB fell for the planner's fallacy. Its officials believe that somehow agency planners have special knowledge that markets, investors, and industry lack. Nursing conspiracy theories that painted automakers as evil conspirators hiding useful technology, some CARB officials seem to "just know" that battery electric vehicles are the right technology. CARB member William F. Friedman offered a startling display of this attitude when he recently told a representative of General Motors, "It disturbs me to hear delays. ... It is really time to get on with the business of progress. And progress will be made when we stick it to you to make you do what you need to do."

Secondly, CARB was caught in the fallacy of tunnel vision. Focusing only on the tailpipe of the car, regulators lost sight of the larger impacts the mandate could have on environmental quality. They ignored warnings from several analysts, including University of Southern California professors Peter Gordon and Harry Richardson who demonstrated that the high cost of electric cars would inflate the cost of regular gasoline cars, slow fleet turnover, and cause more people to hold on longer to more polluting cars. For that matter, CARB regulators ignored a study by Environmental Engineering Professor Lester Lave and colleagues at Carnegie-Mellon University whose 1995 article in Science showed that electric cars would actually lead to increased lead pollution if marketed at the levels required by the mandate.

The third fallacy CARB officials fell for was the fallacy of the static other. CARB regulators were sure their technology would improve, while the "other" guy's would not. But the reality was just the reverse - despite massive spending on research and development, battery technology went nowhere fast. Though originally claiming that the additional cost of a battery-powered car would only be $2,500, CARB regulators now admit that a battery vehicle would cost more than $20,000 more to produce than a functionally better gasoline powered vehicle - a vehicle that is itself vastly cleaner than gasoline-powered cars even five years old. But this acknowledgement is a bit late, as the evidence was coming in some time ago. More than halfway toward mandated sales of electric cars, the U.S. General Accounting Office observed in 1995 that progress toward producing batteries needed for market-worthy vehicles was not moving along well. Despite $123 million in research spending by the United States Advanced Battery Consortium, GAO found that "To date ... the feasibility of such a battery has not been demonstrated."

Last, but certainly not least, CARB regulators fell for the shiny-target fallacy. Rather than shooting at the most important air pollution target -- older, broken-down cars -- CARB regulators thought the shiniest-target would get them more points - zippy electric cars that look great in science fiction movies. But even when the mandate was passed, the majority of auto-based pollution wasn't coming from new cars, but from older cars with broken emission systems.

Now, of course, CARB regulators are claiming credit for all the technological evolution that has happened in the automotive world since they crafted the ZEV mandate. But the argument is specious: the normal trend for technology is to improve, and the mandate never had the clout to be considered a competitive spur to innovation. The improvements in current automobile technology would have happened with or without the regulatory disaster called the ZEV mandate as it did in other countries, and in other technological fields. Indeed, without the distractions of trying to fend off or comply with a bad regulation, automakers would have had that much more money to spend on R&D to discover new products and features the public actually wants to buy, and our currently clean cars might be that much cleaner.

Everyone wants clean air, but policies that waste resources for no clean-air benefit only distract attention from more promising approaches. Let's hope for a quick end to this four-part fallacy that stands to undermine the pursuit of the very environmental quality CARB was supposed to embody.

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