California Ruling to Revive the (Hybrid) Electric Car

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California may have relaxed its ruling about how many zero-emission cars it would mandate by 2014, but by doing so it upped the ante on plug-in hybrids. The California Air Resources Board voted to alter its previous demand for 25,000 zero-emission cars — meaning vehicles powered by hydrogen fuel cells — to 7,500, including cars that automakers use in test fleets, like Honda, GM and others are currently testing, not just those sold to the public.

The reasoning for the change of heart is that California doesn’t expect to have a big enough hydrogen infrastructure to support that many vehicles.

What will actually affect car shoppers across the country, however, is that the ruling allows automakers to substitute 58,000 plug-in hybrids in place of the hydrogen cars it omitted.

Both GM, with its Chevy Volt and Saturn Vue, and Toyota with its Prius have stated those plug-in vehicles will come to market by 2010. This ruling pretty much guarantees they will, and that these vehicles will most likely be available nationwide at some point. However, because of demand and regulations, we’d guess sales of the new plug-ins will start in California, leaving the rest of the country in a green lurch, at least early on.

The numbers are also collective, meaning the six largest automakers need to produce 58,000 plug-ins collectively. We’re not sure how they’ll split up that pie or how penalties will be determined. Toyota sold almost 180,000 Prius hybrids last year, which makes it seem like an easy target. However, the new plug-ins are expected to cost much more than a traditional hybrid. Automakers complain that producing this many plug-ins and hydrogen cars will cost them $1 billion collectively per year. We suggest they spend the next six years trying to find ways to lower that loss so the rest of the country can get in on the greenness.

Hydrogen Car Prospects Sputter

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Former managing editor David Thomas has a thing for wagons and owns a 2010 Subaru Outback and a 2005 Volkswagen Passat wagon. Email David Thomas

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