EV Charger Law Spawning New GM Image Woes?By John O'Dell August 25, 2011
It looked for a while as though its embrace of electric-drive technology with the Chevrolet Volt and upcoming Cadillac ELR plug-in hybrids had closed the gap that separated General Motors Co. from the vociferous cadre of electric-vehicle fans in the U.S. that accused the automaker of blocking EV growth in the U.S. But GM's push for a new law governing use of public electric-vehicle charging stations and parking spots in California appears to have laid bare and scraped raw some of those old wounds. The measure, California Assembly Bill 475 by Torrance Democrat Betsy Butler, was approved by the state legislature this week and is now awaiting endorsement or veto by Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown.
Opponents mostly members of the state's EV-driving demographic, although some of the carmakers that are introducing 100 percent electric battery-electric vehicles (BEVs) in the U.S. are thought to be adding their voices are flooding Brown's office with e-mails urging that he veto the bill because it creates new problems and doesn't solve old ones. Proponents, largely GM and Volt drivers at this point, say it is needed to ensure that plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) can use the chargers. GM also argues that one of the measure's most distinguishing characteristics elimination of a requirement that vehicles using the charging stations sport a state-issued permit will reduce government costs, which is not a bad argument at a time when California is wrestling with a multi-billion-dollar deficit. The issue is likely to spill out of California and into other states as public chargers become more commonplace and rulemakers look to California, which has pioneered most BEV practices and regulations, for guidance.
Connect Or Else
On its face, the bill seems innocuous. GM says it was designed to ensure that owners of plug-in hybrids have equal access to public chargers. The law it replaces was written when there were no PHEVs and only fully electric vehicles, the BEVs, used the chargers that were spotted around the state in the late 1990s. That old measure required BEV owners to apply for a special parking sticker from the California Department of Motor Vehicles and to display the sticker in order to use public charging spots without being ticketed. GM, whose Advanced Technology Vehicles Research Center (pictured above) is in Butler's district, asked the state Assembly member to sponsor a revised version to add PHEVs, which have gasoline engines or generators as well as electric motors powered by rechargeable battery packs. At the last minute, GM also asked for, and received, a change in wording that eliminates the sticker requirement.
The measure as approved almost unanimously by a legislature that has agreed on almost nothing else in the past few years now requires only that a BEV or PHEV be "connected for electric charging purposes" in order to be legally parked in a designated vehicle charging space. The penalty for violation is towing. And there is a provision that allows individual jurisdictions to set up additional rules if they so desire things like time limits so that a car that needs only an hour of recharging time doesn't take up the space for four or five hours while the owner has dinner and attends a movie or concert.
What got plug-in advocate Chelsea Sexton and members of the advocacy group Plug In America up in arms is that the seemingly innocent change appears to spell an end to the collegial practice of "plug sharing" that California's BEV drivers have practiced for years as a way of maximizing the relatively few public charging sports available. BEV drivers in the state have always felt free, when arriving at a charger that was occupied by a car that was hooked up but done charging, to park in an adjacent spot, unplug the first car and to plug in their own vehicle. A whole set of protocols evolved that included use of dashboard placards on which drivers might write something like: "Plugged in at 2 p.m. Only need an hour's worth to get home. OK to unplug me after 3." Under Butler's new bill, however, a driver who unplugs another's car leaves that first car subject to being towed, and that has EV drivers in an uproar.
Butler, who spoke with AutoObserver in a telephone interview, defends the measure as one that is needed to help move electric-vehicle charging into the present. The old informal sharing etiquette was fine when there were a few hundred electric-vehicle drivers in the state, but now that there will soon be tens of thousands of BEVs and PHEVs, she said, everyone needs to have equal access to the chargers. Eliminating the requirement for a sticker and instead requiring vehicles to be connected to the charger will streamline things and push retailers and government agencies that install chargers to make sure they install sufficient numbers to meet anticipated demand, she said.
Acknowledging that AB475 is a first effort, Butler who doesn't drive an electric vehicle said that she recognizes that the situation likely will change as more and more of the cars are sold and that "we might need to go back next year" and look at revisions. "No one size fits all," she said in answer to critics' charges that the bill is flawed. Some critics have even argued that the bill's "connected for electric charging" requirement is so vaguely worded it could be interpreted to permit the driver of a gas-guzzling SUV to park legally in a BEV/PHEV spot by hooking a cell-phone charger to the 110-volt outlet with which many public charging stations are equipped and placing the charger and cell phone on the front seat of the vehicle.
Because GM was the force behind the bill, some BEV drivers also are suggesting that the automaker, reviled by many electric car enthusiasts for ordering the destruction of the original EV1 battery-electric cars when their leases expired in 2002 and 2003, is using the measure to pursue an anti-BEV agenda. Ending plug sharing, they argue, will make it more difficult for BEV owners to find public chargers when needed and thus will add to range anxiety and keep people from considering the cars. Some on an AB475 string on the MyNissanLeaf.com owners forum have noted (see sidebar, left) that GM markets its Volt as the answer to range anxiety because when its battery is depleted its internal combustion generator comes on to keep the car operating.
That same argument is being used by some to wonder whether the Volt and other plug-ins that have gas engines to rely on should be given the same access to public chargers as the BEVs, which are entirely dependent on batteries for power. On that same Leaf owners' forum can be found postings in which a few drivers say they would have no qualms about unplugging a Volt if they needed a charge to get home and a Volt was already hooked up to the charger. That's what fed GM's determination to make sure AB475 gave equal access to plug-in hybrids. The bill, as changed late last week and passed on Monday "does not discriminate against vehicles with plugs" and gas engines and eliminates the time-consuming regulatory step of applying and waiting for the state DMV to send a parking sticker, said Shad Balch, environmental issues spokesman for GM in California.
It is the "connected for charging" requirement that angers Sexton, a former GM employee who helped market the fuel-efficient Saturn and the first modern all-electric vehicle, the EV1. Sexton, who now runs her own non-profit electric-drive advocacy organization, the Lightening Rod Foundation, was a co-founder of Plug In America. She worked with Butler and GM on AB475 and said in an interview with AutoObserver that as originally drafted the measure would simply have expanded the old law to include plug-in hybrids and make them eligible for the state's charging spot sticker. "GM was fine with that until last Thursday," she said in an interview earlier this week. "I thought we were working together and when they first proposed this connection requirement we talked about that and worked up what I thought was an agreement" to eliminate the clause. "Then [Assemblywoman] Betsy Butler called me and said that GM didn't agree, so she wasn't going to change it."
Time to Move On
Balch, the environmental issues spokesman for GM in California, said the company was concerned because some BEV drivers have posted statements on various Internet chat sites, arguing that BEVs should have preference over plug-in hybrids at charging stations. GM sees that as anti-Volt rhetoric and pushed for Butler's bill to ensure that plug-ins are allowed access to chargers on an equal footing with pure EVs and can't be unplugged by someone who thinks BEVs should have preference, he said. The automaker also philosophically opposes the idea of forcing drivers to apply and pay for identifying stickers, he said.
As for the complaint that the bill ends the practice of plug sharing, well, it's time it ended, said Balch. Under the old system, BEV drivers with stickers could simply use the charging slots as parking spaces and effectively block those who needed to charge, he said. By requiring cars in charger-equipped spaces to be "connected for charging," Balch said, the Butler bill "means no one can park just to take advantage of free charging and thus block someone else." He dismissed the suggestion that the bill doesn't ensure that because it still would permit a BEV or PHEV to legally park in a charger space as long as it was plugged-in, even when the charging operation had ended. Local jurisdictions can institute additional rules addressing that if it becomes an issue, he said.
Balch also argued and Butler echoed him that the country is moving into an era that will see tens of thousands of BEVs and PHEVs on the streets and that the old practice of sharing plugs won't work with so many vehicles vying for charging time. Butler said she's hoping that drivers would "use common sense" and be "responsible" by making sure they moved their cars out of charger spots once they'd received the battery top-up they needed. If voluntary action doesn't work and complaints mount, she said, supporting Balch's argument, then it might be necessary for jurisdictions to impose parking time limits on the chargers, just as exist with many regular parking spaces.
For her part, Sexton worries that the bill would create problems that go beyond the end of plug sharing. "It makes charging more complicated and could mean that people who were going to add chargers to their parking facilities won't because now, instead of one charger for two or three spots, they'll have to have one charger per space." Additionally, she said, "the bill leaves EV and plug-in drivers vulnerable to a new kind of vandalism malicious unplugging. If you park and plug in and someone comes along later and unplugs you, a parking enforcement officer isn't going to know that. You could come back to find that your car has been towed to an impound yard."
Arguments from Sexton and Jay Friedland, legislative director for Plug In America, didn't sway Butler. Her bill passed the legislature on Monday and has been sent to Brown's office for final action. A spokesman for Nissan Motors North America, which markets the Leaf but wasn't involved in drafting AB475, said his company "has concerns" about the bill and intends to let Brown know what they are. A number of BEV advocates also have begun an e-mail campaign in hopes of persuading Brown to veto the measure. Butler said Brown's office hasn't communicated his leanings to her. The governor has 10 days after the bill hits his desk to sign or veto.