AB475: GM’s charging stance gets curiouser and curiouser…

Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction, but the AB475 saga feels more like a fall down Alice’s rabbit hole. GM’s stance against plug-in drivers has only gotten more extreme, in what may be the company’s strangest PR execution since killing the EV1.

Meanwhile, I have just returned from Sacramento, after joining Plug In America in a meeting with Governor Brown’s office, to pull this bill back on a more productive path. We’ve been asked to move things forward by immediately preparing a new version of AB475 that serves all plug-in drivers, something we’re happy to pull an all-nighter for.

To recap: Volt drivers are currently excluded from using a fraction of California’s public chargers, originally designated for electric vehicles (EVs) only and requiring a sticker to prove eligibility. Proposed by Assemblymember Betsy Butler and sponsored by General Motors, AB475 was meant to do two things: expand the vehicles allowed to use public charging to include PHEVs, and designate a way to identify eligible vehicles, so that non-compliant ones may be towed. The advocates involved have no objection to including PHEVs; all plug-in vehicles should have equal access to charging. Our concerns surround only the proposed method of identification- specifically the seemingly simple shift from a sticker to language requiring eligible vehicles to be “connected for charging purposes”.

This detail makes it illegal to be parked in one of these spots but not plugged in. No matter how or why your EV or PHEV becomes unplugged, it can be towed, even if you can prove you were connected to begin with.

It’s also been proven most effective and economical to install each charger between 2-4 parking spaces where possible, providing several benefits:

  • installations are simpler and cheaper, requiring less private and taxpayer funding per site.
  • inconvenience from errant gas vehicles (ICEing) is mitigated; they still get towed, but instead of waiting while that happens, the PH/EV driver simply takes the next spot and plugs in.

    GM's Dave Barthmuss seems to enjoy charger sharing...
  • drivers can share chargers by giving permission to others to unplug their vehicles if needed, or by requesting that another driver plug the remaining vehicle in upon leaving. Again: sharing is a voluntary practice. No community-based sharing protocol endorses unplugging a vehicle against its owner’s wishes.

AB475 will no longer allow these installations. And particularly in this economy, existing sites are unlikely to add chargers to the spots that currently share, reducing charger-accessible spots by 50-75% at those locations. Therefore, this law will increase installation costs to businesses and taxpayers, decrease access to chargers and make using them more complicated, and increase negative impacts of ICEing– the very issue this law is meant to address.

The language of the statute also does not adequately protect against gasoline vehicles parking in these spaces. It’s not the most severe issue with this bill, but as the core objective, it’s an odd thing to get wrong.

After months of working in good faith with GM (who consistently agreed with our concerns) to encourage Butler to alter the “connected” requirement, the bill was pushed through a week ago with no changes. We were surprised, to say the least- even more when Butler’s office admitted that GM had encouraged it. Hundreds of people have since asked Governor Brown to veto the bill, and other automakers are weighing in on behalf of their own concerned drivers.

General Motors has been taking an increasingly baffling approach. Their initial public response wasn’t to address the stakeholder concerns, but to discredit me personally. After days of being called a conspiracy theorist, accused of maliciously spreading false information and encouraging plug-in drivers to target and unplug Volts in public charging locations, GM finally asserted that I alone don’t like this bill, and have put everyone else- including Plug In America- up to opposing it for my own purposes. What those purposes would be, I don’t know; even GM concedes it doesn’t make sense. I also don’t have the requisite ego to be flattered that the company thinks people will do something they disagree with just because I ask. But that GM assumes plug-in advocates and drivers, including their own, are incapable of thinking for themselves is just disconcerting. Having to earn the support and business of people you respect so little must be a bitter pill to swallow.

Concurrent email conversation with GM in hopes of negotiating a solution only revealed a reversal in their position on other fronts. The company is now against the originally-acceptable sticker approach “on principle”, as plug-in drivers shouldn’t have to endure the “extra process step” of a form and a eighteen dollars to get a publicly-funded benefit. Charger sharing now “promotes malicious unplugging and needs to be outlawed”. Installing chargers between spaces is not “responsible planning”, and the act of unplugging a vehicle, even with permission, should be codified as vandalism and “punished as if you slashed someone’s tires.” (Notably, AB475 does not outlaw unplugging; it merely punishes the one who gets unplugged.) Paradoxically, our concern about passersby unplugging vehicles out of curiosity or resentment is “speculative”, even though it’s happened for years. Apparently, unplugging is only an EV driver on driver crime.

General Motors has yet to give a direct public response to our concerns. They did ghostwrite inspire a piece by Car & Driver, and have posted their own perspective on a GM site created specifically for Volt owners. It completely disregards several of the issues, and instead maligns plug-in drivers as upset because they are no longer entitled to disconnect other vehicles as they see fit, and paranoid about the language allowing gas cars to park in charger spaces. A creative interpretation, indeed.

GM is particularly concerned about a few EV forum posters who’ve opined that since PHEVs aren’t dependent on public chargers, they shouldn’t be entitled to use them. Unfortunately, they have decided to hold the entire driver population responsible for the statements of these posters, and after staunchly insisting on equal treatment for all plug-in cars, the connected mandate seems more to be a misguided attempt to protect Volt drivers at any cost. Ironically, it is they who will bear the brunt of this law’s consequences. Besides being towed instead of merely using a little more gas should they be unplugged somehow, forcing this law is only increasing resentment towards GM- and by extension, the Volt. And while it’s not surprising that GM would prioritize its own drivers, it’s something else completely for Assemblymember Butler to go along with it.

I know many of those involved with the Volt; most are passionate and dedicated. I support their efforts as an advocate, and I count a few of them among my friends. But it is intensely frustrating to watch them go so far astray on this issue, unnecessarily squandering goodwill they’ve spent so long trying to earn back. That behavior is more consistent with the company I knew some years ago, than the people I have come to know since. I miss working with those people, and hope they find their way back soon.

Until then, please urge Governor Brown to veto the mess created in their absence.

GM to CA Volt drivers: “Oops, we did it again.”

....or is it?

For the second time, General Motors has sponsored a California bill that creates more problems than it solves and doesn’t support current Volt drivers (given the problems created, I’d still argue that, but…see update below). And without some eleventh-hour intervention, AB475 is going to pass. As other states often follow California’s lead, the perils of this trend are hardly restricted to the left coast.

Some background: public charging has existed in California since 1996, much of it funded by General Motors. Because federal law requires ADA access, they are often located in prime parking spaces. Signage restricts parking to electric vehicles, but “ICEing”- a gas car parking in a charger space- has been an ongoing nuisance issue.  It’s also been a manageable one, via local parking ordinances that allow offending vehicles to be ticketed or towed.

But in 2002, with EV population arguably in decline, the California legislature passed a law restricting public charger use to “zero-emission vehicles”. It also requires a DMV sticker so parking enforcement can easily tell which vehicles are eligible. Without clear evidence that local ordinances were insufficient, the 2002 law has been “a solution looking for a problem”, adding complexity and administrative costs. But its use by only a few charging sites limited the inconvenience, with just over 800 parking stickers issued to date.

That is, until plug-in hybrids hit the market and Chevrolet Volt drivers were excluded from those chargers. GM stepped in when asked, turning to Assemblymember Betsy Butler, whose district includes the company’s Torrance facility (and my house), and AB475 was born. Originally, it simply expanded eligible vehicles to include PHEVs. But in June, the sticker scheme and complex definitions were scrapped in favor of verbiage stating that any plug-in is legally parked “while connected” to a charger. The change appears to greatly simplify things, but it’s surprisingly problematic.

We’ve learned through years of trial and error that infrastructure use is maximized and cost minimized by installing chargers between two or four parking spaces where feasible. Drivers then share chargers by unplugging a fully-charged vehicle and plugging the next one in, without having to wait for someone to move his car. It also helps with ICEing, the very issue this law is meant to address. Rather than waiting for that vehicle to be moved or towed, the plug-in simply takes the next space.

While popular now, there’s no guarantee that charger sharing will continue as the plug-in vehicle population grows. Even if it doesn’t, it will remain financially prudent to install chargers between spaces. The current verbiage prevents sharing and guarantees that site owners will bear increased hardware and installation costs by having to install 2-4 times as many chargers to serve the same number of spaces.

Additionally, it leaves plug-in drivers vulnerable; any passerby who disconnects the car out of curiosity and fails to get it re-connected properly- or anyone who does it maliciously- could get that vehicle ticketed or towed. “Vandalism” has been a relatively uncommon problem so far, but this practice would take only seconds and require no property damage or breaking of laws, making it attractive to those that resent the support of plug-in vehicles.

When plug-in advocates raised these concerns with General Motors, its policy staff seemed to share them. Alternatives were collaboratively drafted (one as simple as reverting back to the original bill, another eliminating the previous bill entirely), and presented to Butler’s staff. Weeks followed with no movement on the language- odd with stakeholders and the bill’s sponsor seemingly in alignment.

A nuance that affects the fewest drivers- language referring to CARB’s definition of “PHEV”- is the most inexcusable. “PHEV” is not a regulatory term used by CARB; the agency classifies vehicles by tailpipe emissions. Typically, it defines PHEVs as “Enhanced-ATPZEVs” or e-ATPZEV, a criteria that none of the current Volts meet. Any obvious indication of e-ATPZEV status on the car is unlikely, so Volt drivers probably won’t be penalized for using chargers unless someone checks the VIN. Nevertheless, at the request of current Volt drivers, General Motors is creating a law that doesn’t legally protect…current Volt drivers. Any future PHEVs that don’t meet the e-ATPZEV standard would also be left out.

By refusing to change a few words, Butler herself is either condoning “illegal” charger use, or making a value judgement on which PHEVs are worthy of public charging. Ironically, the cars that are “dirtiest” when running on gas are the ones that won’t receive the extra electrons. allowing gasoline and other non-plug-in vehicles to have legal access to the parking and charging spaces meant for plug-in cars, potentially blocking the cleanest cars with the dirtiest ones. (I know, strange twist- see the update.)

Basing consumer incentives on regulatory classifications is generally problematic; the broad application of CARB’s “Zero Emissions Vehicle (ZEV)” label is an example. Using e-ATPZEV as the only criteria for incentives has more harmful implications, as it encourages automakers to charge a premium for that status, knowing consumers will pay to get the incentives. Since General Motors has yet to announce availability or pricing of the Volt’s e-ATPZEV option due next year, that might’ve been the point. Absurdly, the State is helping by using this criteria for both HOV lane and public charging eligibility- forcing buyers to choose the “clean” version of a vehicle already assumed to be and potentially paying more for it.

Butler’s final response came yesterday: the bill won’t be changed, as contrary to all indications, “General Motors did not share your concerns”. Not the first time interests of a corporate constituent outweigh those affected by the proposed law, nor the first time GM has prioritized its own needs above those of their customers- but neither get any easier to swallow with experience. Even Plug In America jumped in, switching its position from supporting the bill to opposing it.

Plug-in vehicle charging should be made as simple and consistent as possible, by revoking the 2002 law and starting over. Now is the time to assess the need for and best implementation of a state law as more vehicles are deployed, while relying on effective local ordinances in the meantime. Even reverting to the original version of AB475 would be better than what’s about to happen.

Instead, we will soon have a law that seeks to address one problem by creating several others, while forcing current plug-in drivers to use more gas.

Photo credit: chevrolet.com

Update: GM’s position is that the non-e-ATPZEV compliant 2011 and 2012 Chevrolet Volts are allowed to use public charging under AB475, as are any future non-e-ATPZEV compliant PHEVs. Copying Shad Balch’s comment from below, expressing the gist of their position:

The digest has erroneously continued to reference a CARB definition, but a Digest is nothing more than a quick explanation of the bill. It is immaterial to the proposed statute and is not used for legislative intent (albeit sloppy work by the legislative analyst). The statute does not allow for discretion in defining eligible vehicles other than “connected for electric charging purposes.”

If there’s no way the definitions could be used for interpreting eligibility, that sounds like good news for current Volt, and potentially other PHEV owners. I’d asked for clarification about this concern several times last week, but I’m glad to have it now. The other issues created by AB475 are not alleviated by this re-interpretation.

Worse, the remaining verbiage in the statute allows parking spaces to be designated “for the exclusive purpose of charging and parking a vehicle that is connected for electric charging purposes”, with no language that excludes gasoline-only vehicles, or alternative fuel vehicles that are not battery electric vehicles or plug-in hybrids. There is nothing that refers to being connected to the EVSE, charger, or electric fueling infrastructure in the space, nor what type of electric charging is permitted. If the vehicles are not defined, the charging should be: e.g., a reference to charging an onboard high-voltage propulsion battery or similar verbiage that’s common to all of the plug-in vehicles we’re trying to accommodate (but not other gasoline or alt fuel vehicles). Someone could put a battery tender on the 12v aux battery in a Suburban, and claim that he is “charging and parking a vehicle that is connected for electric charging purposes.”  The language is fuzzy enough that anything on a car that one could argue is being “charged” would technically be in compliance.

The required signage associated with this statute invites an even looser interpretation: “Unauthorized vehicles not connected for electric charging purposes will be towed away at owner’s expense.” If the gasoline-only vehicle is connected to the cell phone inside of it, it is “connected for electric charging purposes”…of the phone.

I think we’re going in the wrong direction in terms of alleviating concerns about AB475…but the suggested options are looking better by the minute. 

(The remainder of the e-ATPZEV explanation and problems with using it for consumer incentives has been left in the post, because it all still applies to CA’s HOV lane eligibility for PHEVs. This was established last year via SB535, also sponsored by General Motors.)




Wonk, wonk, wonk…

I continue to be on a policy peeve…over at ABG this week, I stirred the HOV lane pot by illustrating the inevitable consequences of SB 535. The worst part about this one is that with 18 mo til it took effect, there’s no good excuse not to have done it right. Settling is occasionally required, but this wasn’t one of those times.

If you can be a good example, you’ll just have to settle for being a horrible warning. Really hope other states heed ours.

Quietly making noise…

Last fall, I posted about the fact that the National Federation of the Blind wants Congress to require added noise to all hybrids and plug-in vehicles. I frankly didn’t think we’d still be talking about it months later, but the issue has only gathered momentum and is now pending inclusion in this year’s Motor Vehicle Safety Act.

Writing another piece on the subject for Autoblog Green only confirmed an abundance of public frustration around it. The main issue is not whether adding sound is good or bad, but that there’s insufficient data on which to mandate it- and even less analysis of the various technological solutions beyond simply making cars louder all the time. Exacerbating the problem is that so few people (including the affected car companies and EV consumer groups) want to talk about it, lest they be painted as insensitive. Given that consumers prefer their cars not make extra noise, there’s a concerning marketability issue, but no organized voice to address it- pretty much a mission with my name on it in neon lights.

I’ve since been joined by a few other folks, namely a fellow EV cohort with a talent for culling and analyzing what little data there is, and a couple of respected journalists who have been watching this all unfold and writing about it here, here, and here. But I’ve mostly encountered brick walls with automakers and various other stakeholders, the consensus being that with a disabled group fronting the initiative, legislators won’t reconsider and anyone asking them to will be seen as politically incorrect. In response to my prodding, one longtime colleague said in exasperation, “the deal with you is that you approach everything with the same intensity, whether you can win or not.”

The observation caught me off guard, but I have to concede he’s right- and not just about my ability to be exasperating. Once I decide to do something, the intensity is about the same, regardless of the expected end result. But that outcome is actually a counterintuitive factor in the decision. Anyone can sign up for something that’s a known win- that venture merely needs warm bodies, and usually isn’t lacking for them. The “unwinnable” is quite often that merely because there are fewer people in its sandbox- what seems impossible often isn’t, if only someone (or enough people) would take it on. If a million people believe in a dumb idea, it’s still a dumb idea- but an idea isn’t inherently bad just because it’s lonely.

Taking those chances has become the core challenge for my colleagues on more and more issues: if it isn’t clearly winnable, it’s harder to muster the effort to take it up. Many who used to brazenly stand on what they deemed right even in the face of reason have diluted their positions to include only what’s popular. The irony of such skittishness is that this generation of the EV movement- and industry- was born out of the unwinnable and politically disfavored. When we started trying to save different EVs some years back, we didn’t at all think we’d succeed. Indeed, we were fairly certain that we’d lose the cars completely- but persisted anyway and proved ourselves wrong in all cases but one. Getting new plug-ins built was for years the very definition of a losing proposition. There are many who think it still is, even with the support of a President and focus of a nation. The first automakers to jump back in did so at a time when other alternative fuels were getting much more political and economic favor. We did it anyway, in part on principle and in some cases with an altered definition of “win”- sometimes merely getting the story told was a feat in itself. In the case of the noise issue, getting a proper study would be a success at this point, and I don’t think that’s too much (or too insensitive) to ask. It’s nothing compared to the effort of rebuilding an industry- and I sometimes wonder if the human cost of having done so isn’t revealed through a newer, more stubborn grip on an easier path. Has the temerity employed to revive this technology given way to timidity now that we have?

Tilting at windmills as a conscious choice doesn’t negate the risk involved- a fall from that height leaves a mark no matter what. And while that’s sometimes part of the excitement, there’s a difference between not running from the challenge and seeking one out for the sake of it. But in the competition for my professional time and energy, the question I consider more often than “is this winnable?” is, “will I still feel good about having worked on it (or wish I had) if we lose?” It’s a tougher question, but in the rare cases where the answer is “yes”, I know it’s exactly what I should be doing- and approach it with the same intensity as a sure thing.

But I’m totally open to an occasional crowd in my sandbox.

Blind leading the blind?



Fisker Karma's artificial sound-emitting bumper speakers
Fisker Karma's artificial sound-emitting bumper speakers

For the most part, the electric vehicle world is palpably buzzing with excitement of cars to come- and after some seriously dark years, there is much to look forward to. The collective conversation has finally shifted from “if” to “how”, but even on easier “how” points, we can’t seem to get out of our own way- which really doesn’t bode well for the hard stuff.

Case in point is a newly-emerging issue over the silence of hybrids and electric cars. In the EV generation of the 1990’s, their comparative lack of noise was a selling point. Now, according to some, it’s a threat to life itself. Advocacy organizations and hyper news reports are forming a chorus with a fairly shrill tune: “Electric cars are going to kill blind people!” Policymakers are now considering a minimum noise requirement for vehicles; worse, automakers are doing it voluntarily. In due time, plug-ins stand to be a favorite domain of the SEMA crowd, so I’m not referring to the folks who want to trick out their EV as Kitt to their David Hasselhoff. It’s in the proposed custom to add constant noise to all hybrids and plug-in vehicles that we’ve collectively lost the plot.

Pedestrian safety is obviously not an unfair consideration, though the amount of spontaneous momentum it’s received lately raises eyebrows. Having experienced a generation of petroleum industry funded “grassroots” organizations who would ploy senior citizens with a boxed lunch and a bus ride in exchange for voicing scripted “objections” to EVs at regulatory hearings in the 1990’s, even I, not a conspiracy theorist, wonder if the blind community has become the new mechanism for similar interests. Realistically, they would likely be the least affected group, compared to the number of sighted pedestrians who run around with iPods connected to noise-blocking earphones or on cell phones (often all but screaming into them to be heard over traffic noise, adding to the communal din), or who simply aren’t paying as much attention as we should. And, there is experience to draw upon…in addition to the EVs deployed to date, we have a decade of experience with hybrids, also electrically driven at low speeds. Are Prii littering crosswalks and parking lots with fallen bi-peds and I’m just out of touch?

Either way, we’ve taken a question that was asked and answered years ago and are turning it into an industry imperative. Except when at a dead stop- when pedestrians of all sorts are reasonably safe, plug-in vehicles are not silent. Many are quiet (though, with today’s insulation and sound-deadening measures, so are many gas cars) but they still have some amount of motor whine, electronic humming, fans, coolant pumps, tire noise, etc. Plug-in hybrids may also have gasoline engines running. Yet even with these “features”, GM engineers thought of and addressed the issue years ago: every EV1 came equipped with a wonkily-named “pedestrian alert alarm”. At low speeds, drivers could engage an electronic chirp/headlight flash to warn pedestrians, as needed, that the car was approaching- loud enough to get attention, but not nearly as startling as the regular horn. Drivers loved it- the car made extra noise only in the moments it mattered. Those on foot were protected- the proverbial “win-win”. So why are we trying to make what was so simply solved a dozen years ago so complicated today?

Electric vehicles were once pervertedly argued to be a social justice issue based on the idea that only wealthier folks were able to afford the early ones, so their communities would have the air-quality benefits. In response, S. David Freeman has incredulously noted that “air doesn’t know a boundary between Brentwood and South LA”. However, plug-ins could in fact be a tool in the social justice box for their lower noise profile in addition to lack of tailpipe. The goal shouldn’t be to make them louder but to aim at sucking decibels from all vehicles. Yes, I know that performance vehicle enthusiasts would have me strung up (I do grok that many think thrust is as much an aural experience as a visceral one), but who would argue that mom’s minivan is deficient without a throaty internal combustion growl? Cleaner, quieter transport means higher property values in often economically depressed neighborhoods adjacent to freeways and high-traffic roadways, to say nothing of the health of the families living there and public dollars saved from not building sound walls and other noise abatement measures. Electric drive technology has attendant benefits beyond the obvious environmental and energy concerns that we haven’t begun to analyze- but should, before we go adulterating it.

But (and it’s a big one), none of this takes away from the most important- and most overlooked point:


More simply said, if you can’t avoid hitting people you shouldn’t be driving a vehicle of any kind. In all of the angst over this issue, it bears repeating. Now can we please- pretty please, get back to the actual (and not insignificant) work of putting cars on the road?