Why the Clean Air Policy Needs Some Insight

Why the Clean Air Policy Needs Some Insight

An article appeared recently in the Los Angeles Times titled "Drivers Who Go Green Get a Red-Carpet Ride." As you might gather from such a headline, the story focused on how cars that benefit Mother Earth are given special benefits of their own. Specific privileges that were listed in this article included $9,000 in grants to be paid out over the course of three years toward the purchase of qualifying vehicles, up to $4,000 in tax credit for the purchase of qualifying vehicles, unrestricted use of carpool lanes (regardless of vehicle occupancy) for qualifying vehicles and free parking at Los Angeles International Airport ... for qualifying vehicles.

If you're thinking that I'm either trying to make a point or have lost my sense of efficiency for the written word, let me assure you, it's the former. Those repetitive "for qualifying vehicles" statements are the crux of this particular Carmudgeon.

You see, while certain vehicles, namely those powered by electricity or natural gas, get to walk up the red carpet, hybrid vehicles like the Honda Insight and Toyota Prius are held back by ropes and security personnel wearing ARB and Sierra Club badges. The reason for this has to do with the Insight and Prius not earning ZEV (Zero Emission Vehicle) ratings. Apparently, being only an Ultra Low Emission Vehicle (Honda Insight) or Super Ultra Low Emission Vehicle (Toyota Prius) isn't good enough.

This is unfortunate, because while the Prius and Insight aren't the cleanest cats around, they're still pretty damn clean, plus they get excellent fuel economy and are functional in the real world. We've already touched on the fact that the Insight doesn't have unrestricted use of California's carpool lanes in Light Traffic Ahead for Low Emission Vehicles. And it should be noted that the Honda Insight is now available with a CVT (continuously variable transmission) and, when equipped with this transmission, will qualify as a SULEV, meaning it can finally use California's prized carpool lanes ... as long as there are at least two people inside the vehicle.

And neither a CVT-equipped Insight nor the Toyota Prius qualify for purchase grants, tax credits or free parking. Only the 5,000 or so electric cars within the state of California receive such treatment.


This same L.A. Times story admits that 5,000 vehicles represent a small fraction of the 27,000,000 vehicles registered in California. Yeah, I guess 1/5,400 isn't a large fraction. Not that I should be surprised. The Edmunds.com editorial staff is made up of 12 people, and of those 12, four have a daily commute of more than 60 miles, meaning electric vehicles are not a viable option. When I was growing up in Denver, the thought of a 60-mile daily commute seemed ludicrous. But with the Los Angeles metroplex spread out over hundreds of square miles, it's quite common for people to drive 50-plus miles each day for simple commuting purposes. Throw in some extra errands, and you've just blown the 60-mile barrier imposed by electric vehicles.

The fallout from so much driving is two-fold. First, it greatly contributes to vehicle emissions and air pollution, as anyone who lives in Los Angeles and looks up at the sky can tell you. Second, it means that while electric vehicles are great for air quality, they're also worthless for a large chunk of L.A. residents.

My point is that California and the federal government need to get realistic about what it's going to take to get people behind the wheel of cleaner burning, more fuel-efficient cars. To take the attitude that a ULEV or SULEV vehicle capable of 50 to 70 mpg doesn't deserve any special treatment is like telling a toddler who has just taken his first step "that's not good enough."

Well, I've just spent the last month driving our long-term Insight, and I can tell you the car is plenty good enough. It's relatively quick, has a crisp shifter, comfortable seats and an entertaining, yet fully functional, gauge cluster. The car can get a little squirrely at highway speeds if there are strong crosswinds or uneven pavement, and, of course, it only seats two. But for the task of commuting in the greater Los Angeles area, there couldn't be a more functional vehicle. I was hoping thousands of other L.A. drivers would discover this little gem during the recent fuel price hike, but it seems the Insight's role as a mainstream vehicle isn't meant to be.

If you don't believe me, take a look at what happened when the cost of fuel skyrocketed a few months ago. Not surprisingly, people became much more interested in vehicles like the Honda Insight, (drivers of our long-term Insight noticed a renewed level of attention wherever the car went). However, because Honda is losing money on every Insight it sells, the company made no plans to increase the limited supply of this vehicle as a response to increased demand.

A sad series of events, don't you think? In the middle of a fuel crisis when, as you might expect, consumers seriously reconsidered buying and driving SUVs and trucks, there were no hybrid vehicles to be found simply because the economics of producing them didn't make sense.

So we have California and the I.R.S. funding the purchase of electric vehicles (and they've come up with 5,000 buyers so far ... woo-hoo), but nobody wants to figure out a way to make the Insight a profitable venture for Honda? This is a vehicle that never needs to be plugged in, can travel between 600 and 700 miles on a 10-gallon tank of gas and is certified as an Ultra Low Emission vehicle (except for CVT-equipped Insights, which are certified as Super Ultra Low Emission Vehicles).

Does anyone else see a disconnect here? If the state of California and/or the federal government provided the same incentives to Honda and consumers that it currently provides for electric vehicle buyers, the Insight could become a profitable venture for Honda and would cost about as much as a typical economy car for consumers. The same would hold true of the Toyota Prius, except that with its four doors and rear seat, the Prius would have no compromises compared to a typical economy car. As a stark-raving capitalist pig, I'm not a fan of any government subsidies, but compared to some of the things my tax money is already paying for, helping Honda and Toyota make a profit on hybrids is an easy sell.

Hmmm. A reasonably priced, low emission, high gas mileage vehicle that is actually useable by the majority of drivers in the Golden State and profitable for the company that is producing it.

Bet they'd sell more than 5,000 of them ... in the first two weeks. And they wouldn't even have to offer free parking at the airport.

Of course, if you read our Light Traffic Ahead for Low Emission Vehicles story, you already know that both the California Air Resources Board and the Sierra Club are unimpressed with the Insight and feel it is "a dirty vehicle." As one ARB official said in that story, if you let cars like the Insight use the HOV lanes, "the lanes would be clogged."

Certainly wouldn't want that. California's freeways clogged with hybrids like the Insight and Prius? Much smarter to keep pushing those 60-mile-range electric cars.

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