California Tells Automakers to Bring Plug-in Hybrid Vehicles to the Showroom

Tens of thousands of plug-in hybrid vehicles will start hitting the roads in 2012 due to last Thursday’s decision by the California Air Resources Board (CARB). In an update of the Zero Emission Vehicle program, CARB established plug-in hybrids as an important enabler of vital zero-emission technologies because of their electric drive trains and advanced batteries. According to CARB staff, approximately 58,000 plug-in hybrids will be placed in California from 2012 to 2014 where none were previously required.

Also, ten other states have adopted California’s Zero Emission Vehicle program, which means the number of plug-in hybrids nationally will be approximately 2.3 times the California requirement, or 133,000.

As I mentioned in a previous post automakers have been touting their plug-in hybrid demonstration vehicles; CARB’s action locks in a commitment to actually put these vehicles in the hands of consumers.

As plug-ins arrive in showrooms, consumers will likely snatch them up. While getting off oil feels good, it can also make sense for the wallet. The per-mile cost of driving a plug-in hybrid with 20 miles of all-electric range is about half as much as conventional vehicle. If you do most of your commute or errands on electricity alone, then the per-mile cost is cut in half again. The savings in gasoline costs offset the up-front cost for larger, more advanced batteries. I realize that many consumers struggle to compare lifetime operational savings with the higher sticker price at the showroom, but gasoline approaching $4.00/gallon certainly motivates people to work out the math.

The CARB requirement kick-starts commercialization of plug-in hybrids. However, complementary policies can accelerate the pace of their broad, mass market appeal and availability. For example, federal consumer incentives such as tax credits have helped propel traditional hybrids into the marketplace, and Congress has introduced legislation to give credits for plug-in hybrids to help overcome the incremental battery cost. Additional policies that speed retooling of auto manufacturing toward electric-drive technologies will promote larger-scale production and drive down costs further.

I’m already looking forward to visiting showrooms in the near future to check out the new cars and see how you plug them in.