Here’s a seemingly obvious, hopefully rhetorical, question. Who do you trust to design the environment-saving cars of our future — engineers or politicians?
I think it’s fair to say that, given the current state of our politics — and politicians! — most of us, given a moment of calm reflection regarding the consequences of that decision, would agree to give the “egghead” the calculator. I mean, how many of us really trust Donald Trump with his fingers on the, uhm, torque wrench?
OK, how about a less obvious question? What is the most effective policy moving forward in our quest for cleaner cars? Is mandating a specific penetration of electric vehicles into our marketplace the way to go? Or should we instead set specific greenhouse gas (GHG) emission targets and then let said eggheads figure out how to get there? It’s an important distinction, notwithstanding the fact that the goal — reducing the carbon footprint of the millions of cars we drive — is exactly the same for both.
The attraction of setting a real Zero Emissions Vehicle (ZEV) — most commonly a battery-powered EV, but also including fuel cell-powered cars — mandate is obvious. By definition they have zero tailpipe emissions. Therefore, their contribution to the reduction of GHGs is easily explained — which is one reason politicians love them — in a 15-second sound bite. There’s also an incredible amount of hype pushing the conversion to electric power, which means — and, again, politicians love this — climbing on the bandwagon results in lots of positive feedback.
Automakers — more specifically, the engineers designing the cars — are not so sure. Indeed, a technology forum recently put on by Mazda makes a valid argument — I’m trying not to say overwhelming lest the Tesla fan-boys yet again label me a gearhead — that setting a rigidly enforced CO2 mandate is actually more effective at cleaning up our air.
Certainly Mazda itself has proven the efficacy of such an approach. Way back in 2007, when the company began its emissions reduction programs, it quickly determined that producing a few EVs — i.e., the less than one per cent of market share that BEVs account for today — would not have nearly the same impact as engineering a more efficient internal combustion engine. It doesn’t take a degree in higher math to understand that reducing the fuel consumption of all its vehicles by 30 per cent by 2015 — the goal of its 2008 Sustainable Zoom-Zoom program — would far outweigh the emissions reduction of converting one per cent of its fleet to battery power.
In fact, it managed 26 per cent. Now — and I am sorry to get a little arcane here, but bear with me, it’s worth it — that’s not the “Obama 54.5-mpg mandate” kind of 26 per cent improvement, where you can make detailed improvement to the fuel consumption of your individual cars and trucks yet still see your overall fleet fuel economy average worsen because your customers are migrating into ever bigger vehicles. No, that 26 per cent improvement was for Mazda’s entire fleet and, in fact, would have been even more pronounced had not, because of cheap gas, many of its customers migrated from compacts to mid-sized crossovers. Otherwise, the company would have hit that 30 per cent, all without building one single solitary electrified vehicle, hybrid, EV or otherwise. But perhaps the best indication of Mazda’s success — and of the efficiency of mandating CO2 reductions rather than EV penetration — is that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has lauded the company for the last five years as having the most fuel-efficient fleet in North America, again despite competing against manufacturers with a significantly electrified model lineup.
Now, let’s contrast that with what’s happening to Mazda in Quebec. La Belle Province’s Liberal government has, to much fanfare, introduced a very aggressive EV mandate that requires fully 3.5 per cent of an automaker’s Quebec sales be ZEV — starting in 2018 — and then raises that target by about three per cent per year until it reaches 22 per cent in 2025. As with all governmental dictum, the specifics are complicated, but the part that gets everyone’s attention is that an automaker will be on the hook for $5,000 for every EV it fails to sell.
Consider this, then. Mazda, thanks to the soon-to-be-introduced SkyActiv-X engines (a gasoline engine that occasionally thinks it’s a fuel-sipping diesel), says it will reduce the CO2 production of its entire fleet by some 50 per cent by 2030 — as compared with 2010 — meaning it’s likely to remain the industry’s least polluting mainstream automaker.
Yet, in Quebec, it will be severely punished. For 2018, Mazda will have no electric vehicles for sale, so every one of its estimated 24,965 (2017’s total) sales in La Belle Province will be penalized — 24,965 x 3.5% x $5,000 — to the tune of some $4.37-million. And, even though it is introducing electrified cars — a mild hybrid in 2019, a plug-in BEV by 2020 and a PHEV in 2021 — it’s unlikely it can ramp up ZEV sales quickly enough to keep up with Quebec’s mandate. In effect, it’s likely the company’s fine will increase every year, again, despite having the most fuel-efficient and least carbon-emitting fleet in the business.
Now, let’s put that into perspective. Do the math, for instance, for the first year when the the minimum ZEV mandate is 3.5 per cent and, according to Quebec’s new rules, you could sell 28 pickups/SUVs and offset your ZEV obligations by selling just one EV. Actually, it gets even more farcical than that. Because the Quebec legislation is designed to favour long-range BEVs, you can actually accumulate, depending on its range, up to four ZEV credits per electric car sold. A Tesla 100D, for instance, is worth 3.5 credits. In other words, you could sell 100 gas-guzzling, green house gas-spewing pickup trucks and SUVs and they’d all be offset by single Model S-like EV. The reduction in your fleet average fuel economy, judging from current large truck Transport Canada ratings, would barely be 0.2 L/100 kilometres.
In fact, it turns out that if you wade through (admittedly American) fleet fuel economy/sales numbers, Ford, FCA and General Motors could replace 22 per cent of their current fleets with EVs — meeting the Quebec government’s mandate for 2025 — and Mazda’s current 100 per cent-gas fleet would still emit less CO2. Ditto Porsche and Infiniti, with Lexus just squeaking by. In fact, you could replace all of FCA’s — and most of Porsche’s — passenger cars with EVs and the fleets of both would still consume more gas per vehicle than Mazda.
Yet, at the risk of repeating myself, if those numbers were subject to Quebec dictate, it would be Mazda that would be punished. If that isn’t indication that politicians need to spend more time setting proper policy — and less choosing technology — then I don’t know what is.