Detroit Auto Show: Will the Volt generate new EPA regulations and ratings?

While the Chevy Volt continues to reap industry praise, some insiders at GM are contemplating the "ifs" should this vehicle come to market. While at the Detroit Auto Show, I was talking to three key GM product planners and asked about potential emissions regulations for the Volt.

"Technically, the Volt's E-flex 3-cylinder ICE is like a remote generator," I suggested. "Wouldn't it have to follow the same EPA regulations as a Honda generator or irrigation pump on a farm?"

"It's an issue that needs addressing," said one of the planners.

"Isn't the same, as say the homemade electric vehicles with genset trailers to charge the car while driving?" I asked. "is it any different than a generator running on a RV?"

"No one knows what kind of regulations (the Volt) would be subjected to," said the planner.

Given that the ICE in a vehicle like the Volt would run on a limited basis, current EPA smog regulations need not be toughened for these applications. In fact, it benefits the movement to open up the regulations and allow diesels to operate in such a part-time application because they could generate electricity more efficiently. The upside is that the ICE can be tuned to run at just one or two rpm levels very efficiently.

The EPA, said one of the GM guys, could also institute some type efficiency program, much like CAFE. In other words, electric vehicles could be rated based on how much juice they draw from the grid per mile driven. That figure could be slapped with a pro-rated carbon penalty based on the overall CO2 output of generating plants in the country. Such a program could be used to penalize manufacturers if they don't develop more efficient vehicles or it could be used by consumers in their purchasing decisions. The ratings could also reflect the amount of fuel used by the ICE to generate electricity for each mile on a long trip, not just small daily commutes where it might not come on at all.

That's why I asked Martin Eberhard of Tesla Motors a similar question, and he said the car owners could "skirt the issue" by installing solar panels.

Right now the federal government should embrace the Volt's concept and encourage more progress without the threat of regulation or penalties. New tests are needed for both mileage estimates and emissions. EPA administrator Steve Johnson did receive a briefing on the Volt (that's him with GM's Beth Lowery), but I could find no comments from him about the vehicle. Let's hope he was impressed.

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