Whale Watching: Range Anxiety Is Overrated -- Worse Is Coming
It seems electric or hybrid-electric vehicles are here to stay, from the smallest golf-cart-size car to commercial-grade work trucks. The recent proliferation has added parking and charging anxiety to range anxiety, an issue that has existed since the days of inoperable or inaccurate fuel gauges, problems with leaks in auxiliary fuel tanks, and similar surprises on the road.
Early adopter California has had EV chargers for more than 15 years, some fueled by GM dollars because of the EV1. Since California does everything possible to cut passenger-vehicle emissions, and for ADA regulations on access, electric vehicles often got prime parking space at airports, malls, libraries, schools, etc. The drivers usually didn't pay for the electricity, either.
A few years later, the state added another law designating public chargers only be used by zero-emission vehicles. The law also required a DMV-issued decal so parking enforcement could easily identify legit electric vehicles. Fewer than 1000 decals were sent out.
For years, electric-car drivers managed to police themselves. They'd leave notes about parking and completed charge time so others could park adjacent and use the plug for their own car. However, in ongoing efforts to fix things that aren't broken, California added another law this fall: Assembly Bill 475. The bill writer, who doesn't drive a car with a plug, said an update was needed because there will soon be tens of thousands of electric and plug-in hybrids (a 2009 UC Berkeley study says 64 percent of all light-duty vehicles by 2030 will be electric), the vehicle mix would be 24 percent, and everyone should have equal access to charging.
But should they?
If you're driving a car or truck that runs solely on electricity, should you have to share available charging space -- whether or not you have to pay for it -- with vehicles that have an alternate propulsion choice? If you drive a clean-burning plug-in that makes less pollution than the local grid supplier, shouldn't you burn the fuel instead of plugging in? Charger access should be reserved for battery-electrics only. What do you think?
AB475 would have originally added plug-in hybrids for decal eligibility, but after a lot of electric car owners complained about the plug-ins -- GM considered it anti-Volt rhetoric -- GM got involved. In the bill, which was revised just before the Assembly voted on it, the decal requirement was stricken, and "connected for charging purposes" became the yardstick. Nearly every company that makes electric vehicles (battery only, no hybrids) urged the governor to veto it. As GM's environmental spokesman noted on a blog, "Volt owners, rest assured, we're fighting for every incentive, every possible benefit we can muster to make owning an EV more attractive. We have a ton at stake here and are determined not to screw it up."
But is a plug-in Prius, Volt, International, or anything else an electric vehicle? The way AB475 is written, I could put my laptop on the dash or console, plug the charger into the parking spot's outlet, or plug in my engine-block heater, and say I'm "connected for charging." GM says the bill eliminates the idea of parking for free charging and blocking someone else, but it doesn't really, because any electric or plug-in could park at a charger even if the vehicle were fully charged. The bill leaves city and county jurisdictions to add any rules addressing such nonsense, set parking time limits, and so on.
If a vehicle is not connected, it can be towed. How long will it be before an electric-car driver sees a Volt or plug-in Prius at a charger, fully charged indicator glowing, and unplugs it out of spite, only to sit and watch (because they're out of power) the plug-in whatever get towed away?
Part of the problem is how vehicles are classified by the California Air Resources Board -- the people behind the oxymoronic "partial zero emission vehicle" -- and how that translates to terms like BEV (battery electric vehicle) and PHEV (plug-in hybrid electric vehicle). It wouldn't surprise me to find something could be plugged in at a charger but not allowed in an HOV lane.
Rivals of AB475 believe it will do more harm than good, in part because many property owners or municipalities won't want to make the added investment required by one charger per parking space. The author's website announcement of the governor's approval signature notes support from a "diverse coalition" that includes charging station manufacturers and the non-profit California Electric Transportation Coalition (CalETC). Of the seven vehicle manufacturers of plug-ins and electrics represented on CalETC's website, GM was the only one supporting the bill.
The bill's author acknowledges there could be problems and it may need future adjustments. But until they develop locking J1772 plugs and I move adjacent to a mall or airport, I'm sticking with a friendly RV park, where many folks have a generator and no one unplugs anyone else.