Chelsea Sexton: SB 535, HOV access for plug-in and the unintended consequences of easy political wins
Posted Sep 28th 2010 2:56PM
One of the persistent challenges of deploying plug-in vehicles has always been metrics: how to evaluate, regulate, incentivize and talk about them to the general public. It's complicated enough transitioning consumers from thinking about miles per gallon to miles per kilowatt hour, particularly for vehicles that refuel via both plug and pump. And within this new language, regulating automakers requires a different dialect than marketing or consumer education, to say nothing of different agency priorities: curbing emissions, reducing petroleum use, protecting public health and so on.
Given the inherent complexity, the impulse to pick one definition or metric for these vehicles and apply it broadly is understandably appealing. But actually doing so creates unintended consequences akin to Maslow's summation that, "if the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem begins to resemble a nail". Such is the case with California's SB 535, which passed earlier this month and will allow plug-in hybrids (PHEVs) and extended-range electric vehicles (EREVs) to have High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lane access beginning on January 1, 2012. On its face, it's a win – but it's a very nuanced win, and one we ought not get too excited about.
HOV lane access is the single most effective perk we've had for electric vehicles; because the earliest adopters are less price sensitive than mainstream buyers (and have incomes high enough to exclude them from many tax credits usually applied to these technologies), they tend to be moved more by incentives that offer convenience and privilege than by any financial benefits. So, as has been done with both hybrids and battery electric vehicles, it not only makes sense but has been a foregone conclusion that PHEVs would enjoy single-occupant HOV lane access for a few years to encourage early uptake. SB 535 was originally constructed as a more robust version of a similar policy used for hybrids, essentially raising minimum miles per gallon ratings from 45 to 65 and adding the requirement of grid rechargability. However, the proposed regulation was pared back in June to reflect only an emissions-based metric: the California Air Resources Board's "enhanced-ATPZEV" designation. The irony is that in focusing solely on emissions, the bill unintentionally promotes the use of gasoline. (This post continues after the jump.)