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Calstart celebrates 20 years of clean transportation

Wed, 12 Dec 2012

Was anyone around 20 years ago in Southern California? Show of hands? Remember how different a time that was? The Cold War had just ended and all those aerospace engineers and rocket scientists were walking around unemployed. An awful lot of cars still had carburetors. There was no such thing as a Super Ultra Low Emission Vehicle. And the California Air Resources Board was telling carmakers that if they wanted to sell cars in the state they had to do so with an increasingly larger and larger percentage of them making no emissions whatsoever.

It was all a little bit crazy.

Visionary Dr. Lon E. Bell was one of those engineers, a Caltech PhD. But instead of wailing and gnashing teeth as others were doing, Bell saw an opportunity. Why not take all those engineers and the companies they worked for and put them to work designing and building all these electric cars that the car companies were going to have to start selling? Along with then-SoCal Edison CEO Mike Peevey and Los Angeles Department of Water and Power chair Mike Gage, Bell founded Calstart and set about doing just that.

“We knew that massive change needed to occur in our industry,” Bell said Monday at Calstart's 20th anniversary. “The technology was right here in the United States, not being utilized; was there a way to take that technology and use it for the benefit of society?”

Bell started making calls and getting companies together in a spirit he dubbed “co-opetition.” The companies would still be competitors but together they could grow the industry in which they worked to the benefit of all. To show it could be done, Bell built an electric car using technologies from 20 different companies and started showing it off. He even took it to the Geneva auto show. It was all very promising.

Then a few things came along that altered the course. Electric cars were no longer required by law, interest waned as gas prices either stayed relatively low or were within the budgets of most buyers. EV development faded away with the CARB zero-emission vehicle mandate.

But Calstart kept at it, shifting its focus to larger vehicles such as trucks and buses, where the higher initial cost of environmentally friendly technology could more easily be absorbed over the longer lifetimes and longer hauls of those vehicles. Transportation infrastructure became another focus of Calstart. Lobbying governments became still another. Progress continued but in a new and different way, though no less environmentally changing.

In its 20 years Calstart:

—Garnered federal funding for programs that lead to the emergence of hybrid heavy duty trucks and buses.

—Helped incentivize hybrid cars.

—Organized coalitions that produced the National Fuel Cell Bus Program and the Zero Emission Bus Program that helped lower the cost of fuel cell buses by 70 percent.

—Encouraged the use of biomethane as a viable low-carbon fuel.

—Coordinated industry input that demonstrated the feasibility of 54.5 mpg CAF

By Mark Vaughn