All over but the buying

More than a decade after California’s controversial Zero Emissions Vehicle (ZEV) program was introduced, air regulators have finally settled on the number of pollution-free cars automakers will be required to sell in the state.

The California Air Resources Board (CARB) voted Jan. 25 to move forward with a program that, while far less stringent than before, will pave the way for tens of thousands of zero emissions vehicles to be sold in the coming decade.

Introduced in 1990, the ZEV program required that, by 2003, 10 percent of vehicles sold in the state would produce no harmful emissions from their tailpipes.

Automakers have consistently lobbied to get rid of the program, and the board has steadily watered the program down during biennial reviews leading up to the 2003 implementation.

This year was the last biennial review. Within weeks the program will be locked in, meaning automakers must prepare to ramp up production to meet the 2003 deadline.

In December, CARB staff presented a proposal that would have drastically reduced the overall number of “pure ZEVs”—vehicles that produce absolutely no pollution, such as battery-driven cars and hydrogen fuel cell cars—while still giving partial credit for an array of super-low emission gasoline cars and hybrid gasoline-electric vehicles.

The board approved parts of the proposal on Jan. 25, but strengthened other provisions. As it stands now, some 10,000 to 15,000 cars sold in the state in 2010 will be powered by batteries or, more likely, fuel cells.

Clean air advocates say they are somewhat disappointed by the final form of the program, but note that it could have been far worse.

“In reality, it is a compromise,” said Jason Mark with the Union of Concerned Scientists. “But the board resisted auto industry pressure to kill the program outright. And the last staff proposal would have bled the zero emission market to death, slowly.”

More important, said Mark, the fight over the ZEV program is finally over, and consumers should soon see pollution-free cars on the showroom floor. And CARB’s decision automatically initiates similar programs in Vermont, Massachusetts and New York, which have set their own standards to mirror those of California.