The California Air Resource Board is considering new certification standards for plug-in hybrid conversions that could make it more costly for companies to enter the market.

A draft proposal calls for companies that convert regular hybrids into plug-conversions to undergo emissions testing on par with new-vehicle tests. It also requires manufacturers to provide warranties of seven to 10 years for different parts, and installers to provide warranties for incorrect installation.

Some plug-in hybrid advocates claim the requirements, if passed as proposed, could be a big barrier to putting plug-in hybrids on the road in California. They fear the requirements could push the technology back a couple of years just as a crop of new plug-in hybrid conversion companies have popped up aimed at buyers who don’t want to wait for major automakers to bring the vehicles to the market in 2010.

But others say the requirements are badly needed to protect buyers who want to do good from paying to add ineffective – or environmentally damaging – products to their cars.

Craig Childers, an air resources engineer at the California Air Resources Board, also known as CARB, said the proposed certification process is expensive and challenging for small companies -- but necessary.

After all, Argonne National Laboratory tests have found that some conversions can actually increase emissions, he said.

“If you take the hybrids like now, like the Prius, they are very tightly designed to meet emissions requirements,” he said. “If you change anything – for example, if you start the engine, turn it off and wait too long before you start again, it’s like another cold start – it can increase emissions. They’ve got to prove that emissions are not compromised.”

Technically, certification is not a new requirement, Childers said. All after-market parts that could impact emissions -- such as, say, turbo chargers -- already require certification.

Still, a certification process for plug-in hybrids has not existed before, and the proposal specifies how the board plans to certify plug-in hybrid kits, he said.

“What we’re doing is laying out a more detailed approach,” he said. “The proposal specifies what [companies] would have to do to prove that emissions are not compromised. You can’t take a car and make it worse than it was before; that’s the idea. And the challenge is you’re starting with the best cars in the world.”

The creation of these specifics means that existing companies are going to have to certify their plug-in conversion kits, installing them on a vehicle and running through the same tests new manufacturers have to pass, he said. Some companies that already have conversions on the road might end up failing those tests.

“It’s an awkward situation because it’s much more complicated than people think,” Childers said. “We need to make sure a conversion is as clean or cleaner than it was before it was converted – we want the same or better. Everyone assumes they’re doing good, but they may not be. We need to make sure.”

Robb Protheroe, owner of conversion-kit company Plug-In Supply, agreed that regulations are needed and called the proposal “a good first draft.”

But some of the proposed requirements are “overly harsh,” he said.

In particular, he said, the endurance-testing proposal seems like it could take pointless years to fulfill (see the draft after-market parts-certification requirements here).

The test, set up to determine how a vehicle will deteriorate over time, would require a vehicle to drive (or simulate driving) for the miles equal to its expected useful life. It would be tested for emissions after about 4,000 miles, then undergo a second emissions test after accumulating the required miles in the so-called durability test.

Protheroe suggested the test could be shortened if, instead of running the vehicle for its expected lifetime, the board simply tested an older battery already near the end of its life, because the vehicle emissions would be the worst at that point.

“There are ways of simulating the end-of-life product,” he said. “Instead of the lifetime test, why not jump to the end of the cycle?”

Other draft provisions with which Protheroe disagrees include one that would standardize a new Yazaki charging coupler for electric vehicles and one that would require batteries to charge in four hours or less (see the draft electric-vehicle-charging requirements here).

He would like to see the standard require couplers equivalent to those made by Yazaki without specifying a manufacturer, in case other manufacturers come out with better technology, he said, and added he would like CARB to also specify some American-made options. 

As far as the four-hour charging time, Protheroe said it would make more sense to draw power off the grid over a longer period of time, from a utility’s standpoint, instead of having all the vehicles charge up in the same first four hours of the evening.

“Even PG&E has said it would like it to be more drawn out,” he said. “They have plenty of cheap power over a seven-hour window, so there’s no reason to charge it all in the first four hours.”

Plug-In Supply’s charger takes six to eight hours to charge a 5-kilowatt battery pack. The four-hour requirement puts an extra burden on manufacturers to come up with new chargers, he said, and could even prevent plug-in hybrids from using standard wall outlets.

Overall, the main concern is the burden of the cost of the process, he said. “They could design a testing program that, if it’s really expensive, the only ones who could do it are large car companies that aren’t too interested [in doing conversions].”

According to the proposal for after-market parts, applicants would have to pay for an engineering evaluation to test the impact on a vehicle’s driveability, provide a vehicle to undergo the durability and emissions testing, provide warranties and – if selected by the board – provide another converted vehicle for in-use testing.

“I understand they don’t want a kit to turn a clean car into a dirty car, but [these requirements] are unduly harsh,” he said. “Are they creating roadblocks? Are they under the influence of large car manufacturers? The problem is now. We want to save the environment now. They should be a little more reasonable in their approach.”

As for Plug-In Supply, Protheroe said he is confident the company will be able to do whatever the regulations end up requiring.

“It would just be a waste to have to wait two years,” he said. “The public wants this stuff now; it doesn’t want to wait years. In the worst-case scenario, we just would not sell to California. It would hurt our sales, but it’s not going to kill us.”


Daniel Sherwood, president of Berkeley, Calif.-based 3Prong Power, another conversion company, also warned that the four-hour charging requirement, along with the warranty specifications and another requirement that would require manufacturers to provide five vehicles for evaporative testing, could have serious impacts on plug-in hybrids and electric cars.

“For a small after-market parts manufacturer, providing five vehicles for testing is an overly onerous requirement,” he wrote in a letter to the board, adding a recommendation that manufacturers selling less than 1,000 cars or conversions per year provide only one test vehicle. “My company currently has just two project vehicles available for testing.”

And the warranty requirement could essentially cut out lead-acid batteries -- widely available, inexpensive batteries that have been used for electric vehicles for decades -- from being used in conversion kits, he wrote.

“These batteries clearly cannot achieve a seven-year lifespan,” he wrote. “As long as consumers are made properly aware of their battery-lifespan expectations, there should be no problem with continuing to use shorter-than-seven-year-lifespan battery technology.”

Sherwood asked the board to avoid stifling the innovation of “nimble, progressive California small businesses and nonprofits” in this field.

Chelsea Sexton, an electric-vehicle advocate who was featured in “Who Killed the Electric Car?”, said she thinks the new standards will limit the market – but isn’t sure that’s a bad thing.

It’s important to guard the public against bad plug-in products, she said.

“We’re in a fishbowl and anything that happens is going to reflect on us as a movement,” said Sexton, who also is a co-founder of Plug-In America, which promotes electric and plug-in hybrid cars. “Things are going to happen, but we need to do our best to guard against it. There are 250,000 gasoline-car fires a year, and people don’t say, ‘We need to take them off the road,’ but it’s human nature to scrutinize the new.”

She said she believes it’s possible for small conversion companies to meet a minimum emissions standard, but added that she thinks there are other areas – such as the warranties – where the board has more options to meet “the little guys” in the middle.

Providing 10-year warranties would be tough, and Sexton said she’d like to see the board start with five-year warranties instead.

“We want conversions to meet emission standards,” she said. “We might argue about how to go about it, but the sentiment is a good thing. … I’m all for crash-tested, CARB-certified vehicles.”

The board had a public workshop of the proposed test procedures last week, and originally had planned to accept public comments on the draft only until Tuesday (see the agenda here and the staff presentation here).

Childers said the public comment period has been extended, but wasn’t sure of the new deadline, which also isn’t yet available on the CARB Web site.

Before the extension, the board was scheduled to release a statement in September, followed by a 45-day public comment period and a board hearing in October.