Washington Sets Most Aggressive Gas Car Ban Yet

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Washington state’s Clean Cars 2030 bill just passed both houses of the state legislature. If implemented (there are some catches), the bill would put Washington ahead of all other states and many other countries in terms of how fast they’ll require new light vehicles to be zero-emission.

The Key Provision

The key section of the bill says:

Sec. 6. (1) Once a road usage charge, or
equivalent fee or tax based on vehicle miles traveled, is in effect
in the state of Washington with at least 75 percent of the registered
passenger and light duty vehicles in the state participating, then a
goal is established for the state that all publicly owned and
privately owned passenger and light duty vehicles of model year 2030
or later that are sold, purchased, or registered in Washington state
be electric vehicles.

You’ll notice the big catch in that. The electric vehicle requirement doesn’t kick in unless 75% of registered passenger and light duty vehicles are being charged by the mile for road taxes. According to Autoweek, this hasn’t been implemented in the state at all, and would require separate legislation to be passed, but there is a pilot project underway that the state intends to use to learn enough to create a good by-the-mile taxation system.

What such a measure would look like in its final form is unknown. I’ve seen some state proposals that want to place a GPS tracker in all vehicles, but that obviously raises the ire of citizens with privacy concerns. It may be that an annual odometer check or possibly a system where citizens self-report and are randomly audited can achieve the same results. Either way, it’s going to be necessary to have such a system in place if no new vehicles in the state are using gas or diesel, because they wouldn’t have enough money to maintain the roads otherwise.

There are a few other little “gotchas” in the bill.

Defining EVs

For one, the definition of an electric vehicle may be problematic.

“Electric vehicles” are vehicles that use energy stored in
rechargeable battery packs or in hydrogen and which rely solely on
electric motors for propulsion.

Not all readers will agree on whether this is a good definition of an EV, and for different reasons. I’m sure some of you will share your thoughts on this in the comments.

I know one biggie is the inclusion of hydrogen vehicles. Hydrogen fuel cells are a very wasteful technology even when the hydrogen comes from water, sunlight, and electrolysis. Conversion losses, storage losses, and other losses in the complex process of providing hydrogen for an EV add up to the point where you’re better off just using the electricity to charge a battery pack. Even worse, fossil fuel companies are likely to provide hydrogen from natural gas and other not-very-clean sources, which will make it so that hydrogen vehicles could end up being nearly as bad as gasoline vehicles.

On the other hand, limiting clean vehicle technologies strictly to vehicles powered by electric motors fed by batteries or hydrogen doesn’t leave room for future innovation. I don’t know what exactly that would be, but new technologies in the future might not fit Washington’s strict definition and require a law change to allow the vehicles to be sold and registered in the state.

Just for a crazy example, if somebody invented the Mr. Fusion device from Back To The Future, and we could power an EV with banana peels and beer cans, the Washington state legislature would have to go through a big song and dance just to approve it. That could take years, and the existing industry players might look for ways to shut Doc Brown out and prevent the necessary legal changes.

It ultimately might be better to just specify that the vehicle is a zero-emission vehicle and leave it at that.

Finally, it’s unclear whether a plugin hybrid (PHEV) fits this definition. The bill (likely to become law as written) says that the electric motor (and nothing else) must drive the vehicle, and that the energy must come from a battery pack or hydrogen. It doesn’t approve or disapprove either way of where the energy in a battery pack should come from, so it may allow automakers to sell plugin hybrids as long as they’re series hybrids and not parallel hybrids.

For example, the Chevy Volt (which operates in parallel on the highway, but is discontinued) and the Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid (which gives you gas power in parallel when you go for full throttle, like many plugin hybrids) wouldn’t fit because some mechanical energy comes from a gas motor. Something built more like the BMW i3 REx, which only uses gas to charge the battery and not for direct propulsion, might fit.

For better or worse, there’s some ambiguity there that may allow for gas-powered cars to continue to be sold after 2030.

Defining Light-Duty Vehicles

“Passenger and light duty vehicles” are on-road motor
vehicles with a scale weight of up to 10,000 pounds and three or more
wheels. Emergency services vehicles are not passenger and light duty

Basically, medium-duty and heavy-duty trucks wouldn’t be affected by this law. Thus, larger trucks and some cargo vans powered by diesel or gasoline could continue to be sold new after 2030. Between now and then, as technology for operating those vehicles on battery power improves, the Washington legislature may choose to add heavier duty vehicles to the law, but we don’t know how that will go.

Also, note that emergency services vehicles don’t have to be EVs. Expect that many emergency vehicles will go electric anyway because the total cost of ownership is still advantageous for the agencies operating them. On the other hand, there are edge cases (and emergencies often occur at the edges) where the range of an electric vehicle just won’t work out. Wilderness emergency vehicles, like those used for wildland firefighting, are a good example of this.

Keep in mind that emergency vehicles aren’t all owned by government. Someone doing roadside assistance or light towing for AAA may fit the definition and be able to register a non-electric vehicle in the state after 2030. Will many do that? Probably not, as the cost benefits of an electric vehicle will be increasingly hard to deny or ignore.

However this all works out, it’s still a very bold move by the state’s legislature. Not only is Washington years ahead of others, but it’s also passing a real law and not just some executive order. Other provisions direct utilities and others involved in transportation to make sure the electricity and charging infrastructure would be in place to support all of the EVs, so they’re clearly serious about doing this.

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Jennifer Sensiba

Jennifer Sensiba is a long time efficient vehicle enthusiast, writer, and photographer. She grew up around a transmission shop, and has been experimenting with vehicle efficiency since she was 16 and drove a Pontiac Fiero. She likes to get off the beaten path in her "Bolt EAV" and any other EVs she can get behind the wheel or handlebars of with her wife and kids. You can find her on Twitter here, Facebook here, and YouTube here.

Jennifer Sensiba has 1762 posts and counting. See all posts by Jennifer Sensiba