Turn On, Plug In, Peel Out

Posted on September 18, 2017 by Samuel I. Gutter

(With apologies to the late Timothy Leary [“Turn on, tune in, drop out”], who was referring to Electric Kool-Aid, not Electric Vehicles.)

Today, September 18th, is the second anniversary of the first public disclosure of the VW “Defeat Device” scandal.  It also marks the beginning of the end of sales of diesel-powered VW cars in the U.S.  And while other companies (Chevy, BMW, Jaguar and Land Rover, among them) still offer diesel cars and SUVs, the pickings are a lot slimmer. 

One unintended consequence of diesel’s fall from grace is the boost it has provided to electric vehicles.  Auto manufacturers must find ways to meet increasingly stringent fuel-economy standards, and for some the efficient diesel was a way to hike their “CAFE” (corporate average fuel economy) numbers.  Now, signs are that Tesla, even with the introduction of its less-expensive Model 3, will soon be sharing the EV market with a growing number of competitors.  GM and Nissan are expanding their pure EV offerings, and Volvo, Mercedes and Mini are planning to release their own “zero emission vehicles” (ZEVs) over the coming years.  Meantime, plug-in electric/gasoline hybrids are becoming common-place, with offerings from Toyota, Cadillac, Volvo, Ford, BMW, and others.  

While diesels dominate the line-haul truck market, Cummins and Tesla are both planning to introduce short-haul electric heavy trucks in the near future.  And what could be more telling than the announcement by the quintessential American company, Harley-Davidson, that it will start selling its “Livewire” electric motorcycle in five years?  Will “Rolling Thunder” become an anachronism?

International pressure to reduce GHGs and urban air pollution is also at play.  China, India, England, France and Norway are all considering an outright ban on the sale of fossil-fueled vehicles.  And back to VW, as part of its Defeat Device settlement, the company agreed to spend $2 billion over the next 10 years on U.S. infrastructure to support electric vehicles.

Battery prices are coming down and charge stations are going up.  And sure, diesels have great torque, but as anyone who has experienced the head-banging g-force of mashing the pedal in an EV will tell you, diesels are best viewed in the rear-view mirror. 

Still, many institutional and social barriers remain – proprietary charging technologies, reliance on government subsidies, high costs of electricity with (in some areas) no reduction in nighttime rates, and consumers who are wary of the emerging technology and fear being stranded on the highway with a depleted battery.  But while ZEVs and plug-in hybrids are still a fraction of total vehicles sales, they are increasing in numbers and market share.  As prices drop and driving range increases, electric vehicles will become more affordable and practical.

Fasten your seatbelt, there might be an EV in your future!

Technology Forcing

Posted on March 6, 2017 by Steve McKinney

We environmental lawyers are well-acquainted with the technology-forcing requirements of many statutes.  I, however, do not love technology and I hate being forced. 

The idea behind “technology forcing” statutory provisions is that if Congress adopts requirements beyond the demonstrated capability of currently available technology, that will cause smart people to develop new technology that will meet the new requirements.  Simple.  Better technology is just waiting to be developed.  The cost or other impacts of new technology are seldom regarded as good reasons to hesitate.  There may even be an implication that trying to count that cost or consider those impacts is an unreasonable hindrance to the unlimited and irrepressible march of technology, which is always good, right?

Not so fast.  In my standard Dad-think, I bought our youngest daughter a brand-new, highly-acclaimed-for-safety-and-reliability Honda Accord to begin her new post-graduate life of go-everywhere-any-time-of-night independence.  The reliable-as-a-hammer reputation of Honda, however, has been seriously tarnished for me because this car won’t always start.  One Sunday morning in January as my daughter prepared to depart Birmingham for Washington, D.C., the dashboard of that Accord lit up light a fireworks display before going black and taking the entire electrical system of the auto with it.  Because delay was not an option, she took her mother’s less efficient but more reliable old Lexus to DC while Dad spent Monday morning at the dealership.  The problem?  In pursuit of technology-forcing CAFÉ standards, Honda had a bright idea (all puns intended).  Honda added a sensor to detect when the Accord’s battery had sufficient residual charge to switch the car’s alternator out of service until needed.  Periodic reduction of the marginal drag of the alternator on the engine’s main drive belt at least theoretically benefited the Accord’s highway mileage rating.  Unfortunately, when the new sensor fails, as it did that Sunday morning, the entire electrical system goes haywire and the engine will not run.

When I came to understand that this tiny piece of technology that had been added to my car to chase a microscopic mileage advantage had also become a critical failure pathway for my precious daughter’s car, I was angry.  I admit it.  I cussed.  When the failure occurred again 45 days later on the Sunday morning my daughter was planning to return to DC with her Honda after bringing her Mom’s car home, I really cussed.  The earlier fireworks had likely damaged the car’s battery that now became the critical failure barrier to normal operation.

Cooler heads will explain that thousands of Honda Accords have probably operated millions of miles with that microscopic mileage advantage adding up.  But the personal travails of one little environmental lawyer at least microscopically demonstrate that there are costs and impacts to technology-forcing requirements.  The rest of this story might be even more entertaining.  What do you think will happen when a different kind of lawyer figures out that there may be thousands of Accord owners driving around with new technology-forcing battery sensor switches that are prone to failure and might cost you a battery?