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Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors, has a plan for a national ZEV policy. What does that mean?

Autonomous Vehicles

What Mary Barra’s National EV Mandate Plan Says — And Doesn’t Say — About General Motors

Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors, has a plan for a national ZEV policy. What does that mean?

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The public comment period on the federal government’s plan to roll back Obama-era fuel economy standards will end soon. Just before the deadline, Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors, submitted her company’s position in an op-ed piece published by USA Today. Here is her position statement in its entirety.

Mary Barra ZEV plan

Credit: General Motors

“A century ago, the automobile gave people freedom, changing their lives forever. With this freedom, however, came effects such as crashes, environmental impact and congestion. Now, through innovative technology, we have a historic opportunity to make personal mobility safer, better and more sustainable.

“The United States can lead this transformation, particularly in electric and self-driving vehicles, but it requires collaboration by the private and public sectors, supported by comprehensive federal policies. A year ago, General Motors shared our commitment to an all-electric future — part of our vision to create a world with Zero Crashes, Zero Emissions and Zero Congestion.

“Today, we are calling for a National Zero Emission Vehicle program to create a comprehensive approach to help move our country faster to an all-electric, zero emissions future. The most effective, efficient way to get there is with a thoughtful, thorough and consistent National ZEV program based on the existing ZEV framework, supported by complementary policies.

Let’s conserve energy and reduce emissions.

“A single, 50-state solution will help move the U.S. to a leadership position in electrification. It will create jobs through the expansion of battery and electric vehicle research and development and production, improve the environment and make electric vehicles more affordable. Our proposed NZEV program will conserve energy and reduce emissions, while encouraging American innovation and preserving our industrial strength.

“We estimate this program has the potential to place more than 7 million long-range EVs on the road by 2030, while yielding a cumulative incremental reduction of 375 million tons of CO2 emissions between 2021 and 2030. We have submitted this proposal to the administration for consideration.

“Our industry has made great strides in increasing fuel economy and reducing emissions, and this will continue. As the U.S. works toward modernizing fuel economy standards, we call for expanded focus on advanced technologies with maximum potential to transform transportation and our economy. This includes the use of electric vehicles as autonomous vehicles, as well as in ride-sharing programs.

We need government and industry cooperation.

“To help encourage widespread acceptance of electric vehicles in this country, we propose these complementary initiatives:

► Infrastructure investments to accelerate accessible, convenient electric charging.

► Renewing and enhancing federal incentives for U.S. consumers to buy electric vehicles. As electrification reaches its tipping point, allowing these effective incentives to expire, as currently scheduled, will stifle growth.

► Regulatory incentives to support U.S. battery suppliers, who can spark domestic job growth with advanced battery development and production.

“The stakes are high, and time is short. As U.S. companies like General Motors develop and deploy these technologies, governments and industries in Asia and Europe are working together to enact policies now to accelerate the shift to an all-electric future. We need further government and industry cooperation here in the U.S.

“It’s simple: America has the opportunity to lead. Now is the time.”

Unpacking Barra’s Message

Reasonable people may read Barra’s words and get multiple meanings from them. Here are a few interpretations being discussed on the 7th floor of CleanTechnica world headquarters. It used to have 8 floors but that’s another story.

A. General Motors is fully committed to the electric car/renewable energy revolution.

B. This is a cynical ploy to undermine the state of California, its Air Resources Board, and the other states that subscribe to its ZEV guidelines.

C. This is a cynical ploy to slow walk the electric car revolution by appearing to agree with the goal while dragging its feet so it can sell more four wheeled behemoths before the roof falls in on the auto industry.

D. Some of the above.

E. All of the above.

Screwing California — Again

One of the likely subtexts of the Barra plan is to eviscerate the clean air rules put in place by the California Air Resources Board. This is a fierce bone of contention between the Golden State and the federal government, which would like nothing more than to end that state’s exemption under the Clean Air Act that has allowed it to impose stricter ZEV rules than those prescribed by federal regulations for several generations.

Manufacturers loath having to build cars that cater to two distinct rules packages — one for California and another for states that have no zero emissions requirement at all. Conforming to different regulations costs money, which lowers profits.

It is impossible in America today to consider anything anyone says on any subject without parsing the political message behind it. The Trump maladministration has made no secret about its antipathy to California when it comes to immigration policy, legalized marijuana, voter registration rules, net neutrality, and a host of other annoyances that stick in Donald Trump’s craw.

Implementing the Barra plan would let the feds stick it to California one more time. Jamming federal policy down the throat of recalcitrant states may seem curious from people who treat “state’s rights” as some sort of political gospel, but in the real world, power overrules principle every time. Pursuant to the supremacy and interstate commerce clauses of the US Constitution, a national ZEV policy would override California’s long standing exemption to the Clean Air Act. No state’s rights for you!

The Wimpy Principle

Credit: The Awl

Those of you who came of age reading Popeye cartoons will remember a frequent character named Wimpy. His favorite line was, “I will gladly pay you Tuesday for a cheeseburger today.” Barra’s proposal calls for a national ZEV mandate of 25% of all new vehicles — by 2030. But that goal is back loaded to kick in just before the deadline.

Before that? Business as usual — ginormous and highly profitable pickup trucks and large SUVs. Starting at 5% in 2020, the mandate would rise to 15% by 2025. When 2030 finally gets here, GM expects there will be 7 million ZEVs on the road — a pittance compared to the total number of vehicles in the US. “We will gladly promise you 7 million ZEVs by 2030 if you let us sell a ton of gasoline and diesel powered vehicles today.”

And that’s not all. GM wants flexibility built in to the formula so that targets can be adjusted if market conditions change — sales of pickups continue to climb, for instance, or battery prices don’t fall as much as expected. In other words, for General Motors, its “Heads we win; tails you lose.” If battery prices fall and if sales of gas guzzlers don’t go through the roof, we will happily build more ZEVs, God willing and the creek don’t rise.

A Sense Of Urgency

What is lacking in Barra’s manifesto is any sense of urgency. Just last week, GM made a big show of announcing it will henceforth derive 100% of the electricity needed to operate its Arlington, Texas, manufacturing facility using renewable energy. That’s good. But the Arlington plant manufactures nothing but light duty pickups and SUVs like the Cadillac Escalade. That’s bad.

Are you seeing the disconnect here? GM is wrapping itself in greenwash campaigns while continuing to build the vehicles that do the most harm to the environment. It’s hard to see how continuing to do business as usual is helping the US become a world leader in anything except high mortality and low health standards.

Extra Credit For Autonomous Vehicles & Fleet Usage

Cruise autonomous carHere’s another curious thing about Mary Barra’s position paper. It wants any electric cars used in ride-hailing or ride-sharing service to be given extra credit toward the ZEV goal. The theory is that it will be driven many more miles than private automobiles and therefore will have a greater impact on lowering carbon emissions.

That sort of makes sense until you realize GM is pushing forward with autonomous technology for its Cruise division. Clearly, it wants to game the system to benefit its own future business model. There is almost a hint that The General might stop building private cars altogether and go all in on autonomous vehicles that scurry around night and day.

Consider The Source

Before you get all googly eyed over Mary Barra’s flowery pronouncements, remember this is the same company that bought up the nascent Los Angeles public transportation system almost a century ago and shut it down so it could sell more cars. Much of the gridlock and air pollution that has bedeviled the City of Angels ever since can be attributed to GM’s nefarious attitudes.

It is also one of the primary opponents of Tesla’s direct-to-customer business model, often taking the lead in state legislatures to block laws that would allow Tesla to open new markets. GM is much like the oil companies — offering platitudes and promises as a way of staving off the inevitable for as long as possible.

The problem is, the Earth can’t wait for every drop of oil to be extracted and burned. Nor can it wait for the thirst for gas guzzling trucks and SUVs to run its course. As the 6th IPCC Climate Assessment Report released earlier this month makes crystal clear, humanity is screwed if it doesn’t stop pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, starting immediately.

Barra says her plan will keep 375 million tons of CO2 out of the skies over America by 2030. The problem is, we need to keep 1,000 times that amount out of the atmosphere if humanity is to have any hope of avoiding an existential crisis. We can’t wait for measures that won’t kick in fully until 2030. We have to reduce our carbon footprint as a species now. Barra’s self-serving and short-sighted 0.1% solution is too little, too late. In this case, what’s good for General Motors is definitely not good for the country.

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Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new."


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