by Irv Miller
Without detailing the long list of challenges currently facing the auto industry, there is one that is clearly a top priority: road building.
Now, more than ever, while we are so focused on the pressing issues of the moment, we must not lose sight of our industry’s duty and commitment to provide sustainable mobility with vehicles that reduce fuel consumption, overall greenhouse gases and smog-forming emissions.
Yet the road to sustainable mobility is not one, but two separate and distinct---yet related---roads, traveling in the same direction. On each road, you will find vehicles such as plug-in hybrid vehicles (PHVs), fuel-cells (FCs) and battery-electric vehicles (BEVs). Some of the vehicles are powered partially by fossil fuels, some by hydrogen, natural gas and bio-fuels, and some by pure electricity. The roads are not far apart. The drivers on one road can see (and occasionally wave to) the drivers on the other road.
One road is the path to compliance. The other is the path to market preparedness. One road was constructed to meet the priorities of government regulators. The other was constructed to search out and respond to the specific needs of the consumer. Both roads are pointing towards the same goal of sustainable mobility. The ultimate goal is that both roads will arrive together in the same place. But at times, the rules of the roads are at odds.
On the compliance side, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) has mandated that all automakers who sell motor vehicles in the state of California, must phase in to their lineup a certain number of zero-emissions vehicles (ZEV) and near-zero-emissions vehicles over specific time periods. The number of vehicles that must be phased in varies according to how many cars a manufacturer sells in the state.
Phase Two of the mandate runs through model year 2011 and the volume numbers are fairly small. Phase Three begins in model year 2012 and it is then that the volume requirements get serious. CARB has assigned each type of ZEV and near-ZEV a credits value. A hydrogen fuel-cell electric-vehicle, for example, gets more credits than does a plug-in gas-electric hybrid. A manufacturer can use one technology to meet its requirements, or it may use a combination. Although Toyota won’t discuss specific volumes or mixes in accordance with the CARB mandate, it has kept its options open and has announced development programs for PHV, BEV and FC technologies. And it's looking at others.
As manufacturers must comply with government mandates, they must also address the market and the needs of the consumer. In other words, not only are automakers being told to invent the vehicles and bring them to market, they are also tasked with creating the market. The latter is much tougher than the former.
And we accept that. However, the key to developing a market for these vehicles will be dictated by cost to the consumer. Therein lies the big, fat question mark, and no one can answer that question with any degree of certainty.
Within that context, will consumers purchase a BEV with limited around-town range?
Will consumers invest the time and effort it will take to find a re-charging station for their PHV or a hydrogen re-fueling station for their FC?
Will the electricity to power these vehicles be wind, solar, hydro…or coal produced? And will the escalating demand and costs to produce clean electricity drive prices beyond consumer’s acceptance?
So, to find the answers, a manufacturer must travel both roads, simultaneously, in an attempt to create a market that does not yet exist. In some cases there might be detours. In others, dead-ends. What works in Portland, Oregon may not work in New York City, or London. But to be successful, manufacturers must be there, with the right product, in the right place, at the right time.
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