TIME Environment

Your Electric Car Isn’t Making the Air Any Cleaner

Inside The 1st International Electric Vehicle Expo
A Nissan Motor Co. Leaf electric vehicle (EV) is driven for a test drive during the first International Electric Vehicle Expo. Bloomberg/Getty Images

Rich places get most California green vehicle subsidies—and the environmental benefits of rich people’s Teslas are canceled out by all the gas-guzzling clunkers still on our roads

This is a tale of two zip codes.

First there’s 94582: San Ramon, California.

Since 2010, the roughly 38,000 citizens and businesses of this prosperous Bay Area suburb, where the median household income is $140,444, have purchased 463 zero emissions vehicles. Such vehicles receive major state subsidies; nearly $1 million of these subsidies went to vehicle purchasers in San Ramon. But San Ramon doesn’t need the anti-pollution help. Despite being home to a large highway complex and a business park, the city scores in the cleanest 10 percent of California’s zip codes, according to the Cal EPA’s Enviroscreen Index.

The second zip code is 93640, the Central Valley town of Mendota, population 11,800, with a median annual household income of $28,660, which is less than the $36,625 sticker price of a Honda Fit EV. Mendota is in the top 10 percent of California zip codes for pollution and vulnerabilities such as childhood asthma, according to the CALEnviroscreen. And how many vehicles were purchased there under state subsidies? Exactly one, a lone car whose owner received $2,500.

California’s green vehicle policies have been successful enough to become a model for other states, fueling a movement that is electric, both literally and culturally. The state’s audaciously utopian vision has cajoled an initially reluctant auto industry into producing cheaper, better behaving electric cars, led by the media-savvy upstart Tesla. Since 2010, Californians have put more than 100,000 electric vehicles on the road. But those green vehicle policies contain a flaw that undermines their intent and magnifies the unfairness of California’s economy. These rebates—of as much as $5,000, funded by an extra charge on vehicle registrations—go mostly to affluent communities on California’s coast.

Of the $151 million in subsidies paid since 2010, people who bought zero emissions vehicles in the Bay Area, South Coast (Los Angeles) and San Diego Air Basins have gotten $132 million. Over the same period, people in the San Joaquin Valley have gotten $3 million, despite having the most intractable air quality problems in the state.

Go below the Valley’s smog, and the problem runs much deeper: Its cars are old—much older, on average, than the state’s vehicle fleet. Estimates suggest that the median vehicle in poorer Valley communities is from 1996. According to the Air Resources Board, a vehicle made in 1996 produces 29 times as much pollution per mile from its tailpipe as one sold in 2012.

Translation: The Valley’s stock of old gas guzzlers is wiping out the clean air benefits of the subsidies we’ve bestowed upon the wealthy parts of the state.

You can see the dynamic by looking at those two zip codes together. Every 1997 vehicle in Mendota wipes out emissions benefits of 29 electric vehicles in San Ramon. More precisely, it only takes 16 of Mendota’s finest clunkers to turn the benefits of nearly $1 million in subsidies for San Ramon into a pile of sooty particulate.

I am not making this point to advocate the end of the green vehicle subsidies, but to point out that these subsidies were created to target the state’s wealthy. And they succeeded.

Rebates, tax credits and HOV lane stickers appealed to the better off in parts of the state with thriving economies and traffic congestion. Now the state needs to come up with a new set of policies to target California’s many Mendotas. We need a suite of incentives—low interest loans, non profit auto leasing, and more accessible, appropriate rural transit—to get working families out of older polluting vehicles and into cleaner transportation (which doesn’t have to be electric).

Last year I spoke with a Mendota farmworker who drives a 1995 Ford Explorer. Mr. Hernandez drives twice as far to his skilled job every day—115 miles roundtrip—as the average driver of a Nissan Leaf. Last year he had to pay for two smog tests and repairs, totaling around $500, just to keep his car registered.

From Mr. Hernandez’s point of view, the car is a money pit, but it’s necessary for him to get himself to work and bring his daughter to high school. (Parents have to drive their kids to school when the Valley’s Tule fog delays school start times.) Because the car gets only 15 mpg, he spends $400 to $500 a month on gasoline, and often puts off paying other bills to keep getting to work.

Mr. Hernandez said he’d love to get “a little Honda.” Ironically, if he had access to credit, he could get a Ford Fiesta for $1,400 down and $194 a month, which would cut his gasoline bill in half. But such credit is not easy to come by: The percentage of families without a bank account in Fresno is 3.5 times the national average and used car dealers charge much higher interest.

A well-designed state program to enable families to finance or lease better cars would improve their financial situation and reduce gasoline consumption, and carbon emissions. Mr. Hernandez’s clunker is a big opportunity to make much more dramatic air quality gains than we’re currently achieving. Once they’re in place, these programs can be extended to make electric or other zero emissions vehicles accessible to more families and income levels. This will not be easy, but it is no more utopian than the dream of kick-starting an electric vehicle market.

And as it now stands, California’s air incentive policies miss the people who could use them, and sometimes even seem to work in reverse.

California’s air districts offer cash to owners who turn in old, polluting cars to junkyards, but these programs seem to pick up clunkers that are not driven much. In a survey of 164 vehicles scrapped in Southern California, 29 percent were incapable of driving 25 mph.

By contrast, Mr. Hernandez, with his high weekly mileage, got stymied when he went to his local scrapyard. He was offered a $400 incentive, but was told he’d need to pay $650 to clear up an issue in the title. The deal simply didn’t make sense.

“Now I own an antique!” he said throwing up his hands like a man who’s trapped. But he’s not the only one: California’s big green vision will be stuck in neutral until we figure out how to extend its promise to every zip code.

Lisa Margonelli is an editor at large at Zócalo Public Square, for which she wrote this. Her white paper on vehicles in the Central Valley is available here.

This piece originally appeared on Zócalo Public Square.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Automobiles

GM Lawyer Increases Death Toll From Recalled Cars

General Motors CEO Mary Barra Testifies Before Senate Committee About GM's Recalls
Attorney Kenneth Feinberg testifies during a hearing before the Consumer Protection, Product Safety, and Insurance Subcommittee of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee July 17, 2014 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. The subcommittee held hearing on "Examining Accountability and Corporate Culture in Wake of the GM Recalls." Alex Wong—Getty Images

The figure has now been raised to 19 and is expected to go even higher

A lawyer for General Motors has raised the number of eligible compensation claims for deaths related to defective ignition switches in millions of recalled cars.

The death toll from the recalled cars is 19, not 13, as GM had originally indicated. That’s according to an assessment released Monday by GM lawyer Kenneth R. Feinberg, who manages a compensation program for accident victims and surviving families.

The Detroit-based automaker in February recalled more than 2 million of its cars after it acknowledged that switches in the vehicles were prone to shifting, cutting the engine’s power and deactivating airbags and other safety systems. The company had previously said it believed that the faulty switches had led to 13 deaths.

GM has given Feinberg “complete and sole discretion over all compensation awards,” and has waived its right to disagree with his numbers, the company has said. GM said on Monday that it accepts the new, higher assessment of the death toll, Bloomberg reports.

“Ken Feinberg and his team will independently determine the final number of eligible individuals,” a spokesman for GM told Bloomberg. “What is most important is that we are doing the right thing for those who lost loved ones and for those who suffered physical injury.”

GM has so far received 125 death claims, and it is not known how many of those claims might be found eligible in the coming weeks or months. The auto giant is expected to receive even more claims before its Dec. 31 deadline.

GM has also received 58 claims for serious injuries, including brain damage, pervasive burns, double amputation, paraplegia and quadriplegia. Four of those claims have been deemed eligible. Another 262 claims have been received for lesser injuries that required hospitalization or outpatient treatment, eight of which have been accepted.

GM has said its compensation program has no cap and that it will pay any sum that Feinberg “deems appropriate in each and every individual case.” In July, it said it had allocated between $400 million and $600 million for the fund, though it has not yet said how much each individual claim so far approved is worth.

TIME Automobiles

GM Expert Says 19 Deaths Eligible for Compensation

(DETROIT) — The death toll tied to faulty ignition switches in General Motors small cars has risen to 19, according to a compensation expert hired by the company. The number is likely to go higher.

Kenneth Feinberg said Monday that he has determined that 19 wrongful death claims are eligible for payments from GM. General Motors’ estimate of deaths has stood at 13 for months, although the automaker acknoledged the possibility of a higher count.

Feinberg received 125 death claims due to the faulty switches in older-model small cars such as the Chevrolet Cobalt. The rest remain under review or require further documentation, he said in a report issued Monday.

“The public report is simply reporting on those eligible to date,” Feinberg spokeswoman Camille Biros said in an e-mail. “There will certainly be others.”

GM has admitted knowing about the ignition switch problem for more than a decade. Yet it didn’t begin recalling the switches in 2.6 million small cars until earlier this year. The automaker hired Feinberg to compensate victims of crashes caused by the switches, and Feinberg has said GM has not limited the total amount he can pay. Some lawmakers have estimate the death toll is close to 100.

Biros, citing confidentiality agreements, said Feinberg will not identify any of those eligible for payments, nor will he say if the 19 deemed eligible include the 13 deaths that GM has documented. GM has not identified the 13 victims. The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says it has not tallied the total number of deaths.

Biros said no claims have been rejected yet, although Feinberg is in the process of turning down a few because they don’t meet the requirements for compensation. Feinberg will issue reports each Monday on how many claims have been granted, she said.

Feinberg also has received 320 claims for compensation due to injuries. Of those, 12 have been deemed eligible for payments so far.

Of the injury claims, 58 were in the most serious category, seeking compensation for injuries resulting in loss of use of limbs, amputation, permanent brain damage or pervasive burns, the Feinberg statement said. Another 262 claims are for less-serious injuries that required hospital stays or outpatient medical treatment within 48 hours of the crash.

The deadline for filing a claim is Dec. 31.

The faulty ignition switches can slip out of the “run” position into “accessory” or “off,” cutting off power to the engine. That can knock out power steering or brakes and disable the air bags if there’s a crash.

The ignition switch problem triggered a companywide safety review that has resulted in 29 million GM vehicles being recalled through August.

TIME Automakers

Chrysler Recalls Up to 800,000 Jeeps Over Ignition-Switch Problems

A 2005 Jeep Grand Cherokee rolls down the assembly line Wedn
A 2005 Jeep Grand Cherokee rolls down the assembly line Wednesday, Aug. 25, 2004, at Chrysler's Jefferson North Assembly Plant in Detroit, Michigan. John F. Martin—Bloomberg/Getty Images

Older Jeep Grand Cherokees and Jeep Commanders may have a faulty ignition switch

Around 800,000 older Chrysler Jeeps could be affected by a recall due to a problem with the ignition switch, the company said in a statement Tuesday.

The company said it is aware of one reported accident associated with the defect, but no injuries.

The recall will affect a still-undetermined number of model year 2006-2007 Jeep Commanders and 2005-2007 Jeep Grand Cherokees. In vehicles affected by the problem, contact with a driver’s knee or other outside force can move the ignition switch from on to off, causing the engine to stall and cutting power brakes and power steering.

The company said its investigation is ongoing but that around 792,000 vehicles could have faulty switches, including 659,900 in the U.S. and others in Mexico, Canada, and elsewhere. Newer models have been redesigned are unaffected, the company said.

Chrysler’s recalls come as rival automaker General Motors has recalled nearly 28 million automobiles worldwide for similar ignition switch issues. The GM problems have been linked to at least 13 deaths, and the company has faced federal investigation over its handling of the situation.

Chrysler also announced that 21,000 vehicles, including certain 2014 Ram pickups, 2015 Jeep Cherokees and 2015 Chrysler 200 sedans, will be recalled for inspection and, if necessary, have their shocks and struts replaced.

TIME Innovation

Ford President Says Aluminum F-150 Is All Engines Go

Ford

Ford says the truck will ship on time this year, despite analyst concerns that manufacturing plant retooling will impact availability.

Investment firm Morgan Stanley is publicly fretting the truck might be delayed, but Ford says its new lightweight aluminum Ford F-150 pickup is on track and we’ll see it later this year.

“Everything is on schedule and everything is going as planned,” Ford Americas President Joe Hinrichs told reporters, speaking at Ford’s headquarters in Dearborn, Michigan (via Automotive News), adding that he was “very confident in this vehicle.” Morgan Stanley’s analyst Ravi Shanker had said earlier that Ford’s planned factory retooling, which it has to perform in order to produce the new pickup, would result in “slow changeover, with tight supply.”

Ford has noted the planned retooling would temporarily deplete its production by over 90,000 F-Series pickups, reducing company sales and profits. Furthermore, margins are expected to be lower on the new aluminum-bodied F-150. But Ford views all of that as necessary back-stepping to be first to market with a truck that uses a combination of “military-grade aluminum and high-strength steel,” and that’ll weigh roughly 700 pounds less than the version it’s replacing.

Note that Shanker doesn’t say the launch itself is in danger of being delayed, only that supply is going to be very tight in 2014 given manufacturing constraints. If supply is at a trickle, that could mean higher demand-driven dealer pricing, of course, culminating in a scenario where the truck’s debut looks more like a paper launch, and buyers wind up having to wait to lay hands on one until supply catches up.

TIME Automobiles

This Is Why Nokia Is Betting on Smart Cars

No longer a cell phone manufacturer, Nokia is hitching its future on automobiles. The company announced today that it will invest $100 million in smart car technologies through its venture capital business, Nokia Growth Partners. Nokia already has a significant presence in cars thanks to its mapping services, which are used to power GPS systems in four out of five vehicles, according to Bloomberg. The new investment will help Nokia grow its influence in the auto industry as cars become Internet-connected devices.

Nokia is just one of several tech companies that are trying to chart the automobile’s future. Google’s self-driving cars are getting more adept at handling city streets, while Apple is rolling out a version of its iOS operating system made specifically for cars later this year. Car manufacturers themselves are also working to develop smart cars—General Motors plans to sell a mostly self-driving car by the end of the decade.

Nokia completed the sale its mobile phone business to Microsoft for $7.2 billion last month.

TIME Advertising

Here’s a Bunch of Super Old People Telling You to Be Totally Hardcore

Awesome

You’ve probably been told at some point or another that you can learn a lot from your elders. Auto manufacturer Dodge has now gathered a whole bunch of them—many more than 100 years old—to impart some of the wisdom they’ve gained over their long lives. The result is a new ad commemorating the 100th anniversary of the first Dodge. In the spot, men and women as old as 106 share the type of hard-earned knowledge that only comes from a long life on this Earth. Their responses start sweet and then…we won’t spoil it.

Dodge is hoping to expand sales of its muscle cars with updated versions of the Charger and Challenger. The Chrysler-owned brand unveiled two new versions of the cars this week at the New York Auto Show. Last year, Charger sales were up 19% to nearly 100,000 cars sold, making it one of the best-selling full-size cars. This year has been a different story: during for the first three months of 2014, sales dropped 4.4% versus the same time in 2013. Over all Chrysler Group sales last month were up 13% compared to the same month the year previous. It was Chrysler’s best March sales performance since 2007.

TIME Automobiles

5 Cars To Watch At The 2014 New York Auto Show

The New York International Auto Show begins April 18. Here's a sneak peek at some of the industry’s best cars

With the Geneva and Detroit auto shows in the rear-view mirror, car aficionados are turning their attention to the New York International Auto Show, opening Friday.

From Toyota’s completely redesigned new Camry, the best-selling car in the U.S. for the last 12 consecutive years, to the Corvette Z06 convertible, let’s take a look at five models that are rolling into the five boroughs this week.

The New York Auto Show 2014 takes place from Friday, April 18th through Sunday, April 27th.

TIME cars

Spiders Force Mazda Recall, Again

Preparations Ahead Of The Geneva Motor Show 2014
The front grille and bumper of a red Mazda 6 automobile, produced by Mazda Motor Corp., is reflected in the floor of the company's stand ahead of the opening day of the 84th Geneva International Motor Show in Geneva, March 3, 2014. Chris Ratcliffe—Bloomberg/Getty Images

The car company said in recall announced Friday -- the second time in three years -- that the spider invasions can cause cracks and fuel leaks that raise the risk of fire, but it is not aware of any fires due to the spiders

Mazda told U.S. regulators that it was recalling 42,000 sedans with 2.5-liter engines from 2010 to 2012 because spiders that are attracted to the smell of gasoline weave webs that block an engine vent, Reuters reports.

It’s the second time in three years that spiders have forced a Mazda recall.

Mazda said in recall announced Friday that the spider invasions can cause cracks and fuel leaks that raise the risk of fire, but it is not aware of any fires because of the spiders.

 

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