2011 Chevrolet VoltEnlarge Photo
California's electric-car advocates are often "true believers," and they can be single-minded in the pursuit of what they believe is right.
But the nuts-and-bolts experience they've gained during the state's 15 years of electric-car use can be invaluable--which is why policy-makers and car companies take their views seriously.
Which brings us to the strange case of California Assembly Bill 475, and why it has upset advocates so much that they want it vetoed or completely rewritten.
AB 475 is a bill, backed by General Motors [NYSE:GM], to allow Chevrolet Volts (and other plug-in cars with engines too) to use certain charging stations legally.
Plug-in cars, with engines too
Public charging stations have existed in California since the first wave of electric cars started to arrive in 1996. In 2002, a law was passed that restricted parking in certain "EV spaces" to Zero-Emission Vehicles.
About 800 electric-car owners have paid the state $18 for a "Zero Emission Vehicle" sticker that marks their car as authorized to park in these spaces. But not all charging-station spaces in California require electric cars to display the stickers, though some do--no one seems to know how many.
California Zero-Emission Vehicle parking permit, from DanielBusby.comEnlarge Photo
Because they didn't exist at the time, the 2002 law said nothing about plug-in hybrids (e.g. the 2012 Toyota Prius Plug-In Hybrid) or range-extended electric cars (e.g. the Chevy Volt).
These cars have plugs, but also gasoline engines, so they're not zero-emission vehicles. So they can't get the ZEV sticker, and hence are illegal at charging stations that require a sticker to use.
Drafted by Betsy Butler, staff, GM
The bill that became AB 475 started out by adding language to make this new type of plug-ins eligible for the stickers.
The largest number of plug-in hybrids today are Volts, leading GM to assist the staff for sponsor Assemblymember Betsy Butler in drafting the bill. The company did so, it says, at the request of Volt owners who wanted legal access to chargers.
A subsequent draft of the bill eliminated the need for electric-car owners to get the sticker. At that point, Plug-In America and other advocates got involved to address several concerns about the bill's new language.
GM: We'll work with you
GM said it would work with the advocates, recounted advocate Chelsea Sexton, to refine the new draft so it addressed their concerns. After months of meetings and revisions, the bill was passed by the Senate on August 18. Butler introduced it in the Assembly on Friday, August 19, where it was passed on Monday, August 22.
But the final bill contained none of the revisions urged by advocates. Instead, it used the same wording that had brought Plug-In America and others into the process in the first place.
Sacramento Electric Vehicle Gathering, June 18, 2011Enlarge Photo
California Governor Jerry Brown has until October 9 to sign or veto the bill. If he does neither, it passes into law.
Plugged in isn't always charging
The final wording requires any vehicle parked at a charging-station space to be "connected for charging purposes," i.e. plugged in. Or as GM representative Shad Balch put it, "Your charging cord is your parking permit."
Balch stressed that GM sees the overall goal of AB 475 as ensuring spaces with charging stations are occupied only by vehicles "using the space as intended--to charge" and to ensure that it does not in any way simply provide a better, "preferential parking" space for any random electric car.
But whether a car is charging is different from whether it's plugged in. If that little green light on a plug-in dash is green, it's done charging, whether or not the plug is still inserted into the socket. If it's orange on the Prius Plug-In, the car is still charging. (On a Volt, solid green is charging, and flashing green means "done".)
Unfortunately, the requirement that a parked electric car be plugged in at all times makes illegal a practice called "charger sharing," which Sexton and others say has worked well for 15 years now.
Share with your friends, kids
Here's the problem: Suppose you're driving an electric car, you want to recharge while you shop, so you pull in next to a plug-in vehicle already hooked up to a public charger.