Electric fleets are the future of transportation, this California regulator explains how we get there


This post is the second in our Innovation Series

If you’ve ever wondered why some California cities consistently rank among the nation’s most polluted, the answer is simple: cars and trucks.

California’s transportation sector is responsible for about 80% of the state’s smog and 50% of its climate pollution, and much of that pollution comes from the vehicles traveling up and down our highways.

Fortunately, the state is at a turning point: over half a million drivers have made the switch to zero-emission vehicles. And more commercial fleet owners also see benefits to investing in zero-emission vehicles.

I recently sat down with Steve Cliff, the Deputy Executive Officer of the California Air Resources Board to learn more about what the state is doing to accelerate the transition to cleaner cars and trucks.

Pilot projects and incentives

According to Cliff, expanding opportunities for zero-emission vehicles starts with developing pilot projects.

California has invested in a number of zero-emission pilot projects in the years, and it has helped manufacturers, fleet owners and state regulators gather the data needed to answer important questions about what is working well in the electric vehicle space.

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Because of these investments, Cliff says we are now seeing fully commercial clean transit buses, school buses and other types of medium and heavy-duty electric vehicles come on line. Companies like Toyota and Nikola, for example, have both developed zero-emission, hydrogen- fueled heavy-duty trucks, while Daimler has started developing battery-powered freightliners. In fact, the number of electric commercial vehicles on the market has roughly quadrupled since 2016.

But, making the space to gather data and test new technologies is only one part of the process. Equally as important are state led incentives that can enable commercial customers to adopt these vehicles in greater numbers.

“A lot of fleets are working hard to identify where they have the greatest opportunity to deploy their zero-emission technology,” Cliff said, noting that it also helps with public perception if companies are viewed as taking steps to reduce their carbon footprint. “However, economic drivers such as cost and durability remain one of the biggest concerns for fleets. They are less concerned about the bells and whistles on the vehicle. They are much more concerned with costs, maintenance, how long it will last, how to fuel it.”

Medium and heavy-duty electric vehicles are often cheaper to fuel and maintain than their gas guzzling counterparts, due to fewer moving parts capable of breaking, often resulting in lower total cost of ownership over the life of the vehicle. But they currently have a higher up-front cost (though this is changing due to falling battery prices). This, Cliff says, is where the state can play an important role in getting those pilots into the field. Voucher programs, for example, which provide reimbursements for customers who buy electric vehicles, have proven to be quite effective in facilitating early stage deployments. In fact, one of the state’s electric vehicle programs has reportedly issued over 1,000 vouchers to commercial fleet owners who have decided to go electric.

“The right incentive programs can provide a push to the commercialized product,” Cliff said. “Start with a pilot, and then move to a voucher program to encourage buyers and offset costs.”

From incentivizing to standardizing

After these pilot and incentive programs have been successful, state policy that pushes manufacturers and vehicle owners to deploy vehicles into the marketplace can play a crucial role in their standardization. Just last December, CARB developed a first-of-its kind regulation that will electrify all of the state’s public buses by 2040.

Cliff says that’s only the beginning of the statewide transition.
“We’ve been working on transit buses, we are looking at airport shuttle buses and we will be looking to expand that to other types of equipment that can bring more zero emission vehicles to the medium and heavy-duty sector.”

Up next: bringing more charging stations to more places

While California has made huge strides to expand zero emission technology for vehicles, Cliff said the next frontier is to expand our charging stations.

“One of the obstacles I spend the most time being concerned about is infrastructure,” he said. “That’s one of the areas that is critical for us to continue moving forward.”

Developing charging infrastructure can be challenging. It requires close collaboration between private technology companies and utilities to ensure that drivers of electric vehicles have reliable access to charging stations when batteries are running low.

“Having the opportunities to fuel, how fast it can occur, where it can occur – those are all limitations now,” said Cliff. “There is ubiquitous diesel and it’s easier for drivers to access diesel wherever they are. We need that same thing to occur with zero-emission supplies of energy.”

A lesson learned here can provide benefits elsewhere

The lessons learned from California’s impressive, and protective programs can also be applied elsewhere. The primary takeaway from the Golden State’s ambitious environmental laws is that it is possible to have a positive environmental outcome while also having a resilient, growing economy.

“We continue to grow our economy while we also continue to reduce emissions and we think we can do that together and they reinforce one another. It is true that there are costs associated with development and deployment of new technology, but it is also true that you can transition and still have robust growth and a more resilient economy as a result. We want our regulations to be a model.” Cliff said

Others can potentially realize the same sort of success – just as other U.S. states have adopted California’s enhanced transportation regulations under the Clean Air Act, and as China committed to drastically slashing emissions from heavy-duty vehicles.

In a time where the federal government has taken many actions that are harmful to climate and clean air progress, it is critical for states to play a role in making positive change. California’s work to bring zero-emission medium and heavy-duty vehicles to the market is a marquee example of what is both needed and possible.

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