A bill in the California legislature (AB 2628) would set aside 75,000 permits letting owners of hybrids averaging 45 mpg or more and meeing near-zero-emission standards drive solo in highway car-pool lanes. For the congested urban areas of Northern and Southern California, this is a big deal. Some major HOV (High Occupancy Vehicle) lanes require a minimum of 3 in a car. (And yes, solo driving is a major policy/behavioral issue, but not one that is going to be solved any time soon.)
Permitting drivers of low-emissions and/or fuel efficient vehicles HOV access is not a new concept. Encouraged by the federal government, states have the right to open up HOV access to such vehicles. In 1999, California passed AB 71, allowing drivers of electric, LPG and natural gas cars solo occupancy in the HOV lanes. Hybrids do not qualify under the current guidelines because they still burn gasoline and hence are emitters. AB 2628 thus stretches the guidelines to reward and to encourage hybrid buyers, as well as removing the sunset clause for the alternative vehicles in the earlier AB 71. (The provisions of AB 71 expire in 2007.)
However, Bill Ford, CEO of Ford, is launching a last-minute campaign to torpedo AB 2628. As reported in the Sacramento Bee:
In a letter to Schwarzenegger that Ford copied to state lawmakers who have yet to take a final vote, he calls the plan a “Buy Japanese” bill and a “special-interest measure ... intended for almost exclusive use by Toyota Prius drivers.”
The Prius and Honda’s Insight and Civic hybrids meet the legislation’s requirements, but Ford has no product that does. Its new Escape hybrid, which will be the first full hybrid SUV to be on the market, is expected to get about 35 mpg.
“What Bill Ford ought to be focusing on is how Ford can make the most fuel-efficient vehicles and how Ford can beat the Japanese,” [State Treasurer Phil] Angelides [who proposed the bill to its sponsor Assemblywoman Fran Pavley] said.
Pavley says Toyota lobbyists had nothing to do with the bill’s language. In fact, she said, “Toyota originally was trying to push me to lower the mileage” because the company has plans for larger-model hybrids that aren’t as fuel efficient.”
This is a ham-fisted move on Ford’s part. Ford and the other major automakers have all had the opportunity to benefit from the provisions of the earlier AB 71. (Current list of qualified vehicles is here.) That they haven’t leveraged it is their sales and marketing issue.
Second, it is Ford’s failure to develop hybrid models aggressively—i.e., like Honda and Toyota—that put it in the position of having only one hybrid model and one without exceptional gas mileage. That reflects a deficiency in strategic product planning, which comes back to a failure at the executive level. Instead of criticising the mileage bar in AB 2628, Ford should be vocal and aggressive about getting additional hybrid models out into the market.
Focusing on impeding regulations rathering than gearing up for more aggressive engineering is an approach that can only fail when such major market changes—as are beginning now—occur. This is not a failure of technology, or of Ford’s technical capabilities. It is a failure of leadership.