Thursday, July 26, 2007

Let My People Convert! - The A123 Challenge

Les Goldman wants you to convert (your hybrid.) Easy as 123. So he proposed at the California Air Resources Board ZEV workshop on Tuesday.

An ARB ZEV meeting is ordinarily a predictable affair. What began as a simple program requiring an ever increasing percentage of Zero Emission vehicles (read electric cars), has become mired in cumbersome bureaucratic complications. Acronymphia is not a sexual disease. (Look it up.) ZEV, SULEV, PZEV, ATPZEV, Gold, Silver, Bronze, Type I, II, III, and on and on. Tuesday's workshop was not so different. They are contemplating Silver+ and Type IV ZEVs. Uggh.

Unfortunately, everyone recognizes that there is no coming down from this byzantine construction. Simplify is the mantra, but unachievable. Now, to add some further complication, everyone's got religion on plug-in hybrids. Many, including electric advocates, some enviros and ARB staff, (even some cars makers, it would seem) want to figure new ways to use the regs to bring plug-in hybrids to market quickly due to their near term benefits, commercialisability and pathways plug-ins offer to true ZEV. (Add more batteries as they become cheaper and more energy-dense, dump the engine; or, for the more fantasy-minded and those receiving compensation, add hydrogen fuel cell and drop the engine.)

But PHEVs are inherently the most complicated of all options. A plug-in hybrid, one could say, simply integrates electric drive into a car with internal combustion. However, there are innumerable ways to do it. Parallel, serial, blended, just for starters. Even the Prius and Civic Hybrid are quite different. ARB could spend a year in conversation with stakeholders to figure out regs and credits for new OEM plug-in hybrid cars.

A123 has an idea to cut through the difficulty of getting OEMs to make cars. Les Goldman, A123's lobbyist, presented the outline of a proposal that could be a win-win-win and get cars on the road quickly. They've been converting some cars back east, working out the kinks. Lately Goldman has been driving one around DC, meeting with policy makers and pushing for consumer incentives for hybrid conversions. (See my 7/12 post Plug-in Hybrid Bills in Congress Scare Auto Makers) With the addition of the A123 battery module, a Prius gets between 125 and 175 mpg. They are beginning to do crash testing, and will meet emission requirements, in pursuit of a fully legal, compliant vehicle. Throw the ZEV mandate into the mix, and maybe we've got something.
  • Use the existing and growing base of hybrids, offer kits to authorized installers, and give ZEV credit to the original manufacturer in exchange for not killing the car's warranty.
  • Hybrid drivers in California could finally actually get their hybrid converted.
  • ARB could finally take some credit for cars with true ZEV miles once again on the road without depending on the ever-resistant, crusher-happy automakers.
  • A123 gets to sell a lot of batteries without having to wait for the automakers to place orders of the magnitude they promise "once the batteries are ready."
The few automakers in the room remained poker-faced, but it must be an intriguing proposition. They get credits (and credit) and don't have to do much of anything but watch their hybrid improve on someone else's dime. Now that Toyota's got it's own 8 mile (not 6 as I previously reported, thank you sk) all-electric range NiMH Prius being openly test in Japan, and soon here in California, (see Toyota's Plug-in Prius: Out of the Pod, Into the Podcast) and virtually every auto maker making noise about eventually coming out with some sort of PHEV, this proposal could prime the pump, test the waters, prove the pudding. Or not. Let the people convert!