SAN FRANCISCO -- Carlos drives 10,000 miles a year in his electric Nissan Leaf and burns no gasoline. Mary drives 12,000 miles a year in her Chevrolet Volt, using electricity for 9,000 miles and burning gasoline for the remaining 3,000.
How much credit do Carlos and Mary deserve?
This sounds like a high-school algebra question, but here in California -- where state law requires automakers to sell a certain number of zero-emission vehicles -- it's becoming a tough political and ideological one as well.
By 2025, an estimated 15 percent of new vehicles sold in the state would need to be ZEVs. But as California reviews its rules, officials are divided over how to treat the growing crop of plug-in hybrids, which run on battery power but use a gasoline-powered engine as a backup.
The decision comes down to how the state will balance its desire for cleaner air with customers' desire for a practical way to get around. State regulators want to prod automakers to develop the vehicles that California needs to shrink its carbon output. But the strategy works only if customers are willing to buy those vehicles.
Ford, General Motors, Honda and Toyota, worried that they'll need to offer large incentives to sell their share of ZEVs, are pushing California to rewrite its formula to offer more credit for plug-in hybrids such as the Volt. In a complaint to the California Air Resources Board, they argue that these vehicles address range anxiety and are more likely to be accepted by customers in the short run.
"What we don't want is to make the perfect the enemy of the good," Robert Bienenfeld, senior manager for environment and energy strategy at American Honda Motor Co., said in an interview.