Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Volt Drivers are the New Wise Minority: A Motion of Civil Disobedience

"When in the course of current events the constituency of the United States finds itself oppressed and hemmed in by that political body which governs us, and when the working people of this great country which I love so much finds itself with its backs against the wall due to circumstances and situations which are beyond our control, it naturally become the patriotic duty of every concerned American to stand up to and to oppose that which suppresses and restricts the God-given freedoms."
(excerpt from, “The Middle and Working Class Manifesto” by Rev. Paul J. Bern)

I have two gripes with Arizona state law, both pertaining to my beloved Chevy Volt.  Look, I get that laws take time to pass or update, and that the law lags behind technology.  But I'm about to start my third year with the state's first Volt, and nothing has changed for us Volt drivers (except that most of the free chargers now require payment that exceeds the cost of the equivalent amount of gas).  I have been active and vocal on these issues with my state government, to no avail.  With my new job at a very green company, my commute is the worst part of the job - 24 miles one way!  If I babied my car with very gradual acceleration and coasting, and did not use any A/C or heat, I might be able to stretch a full charge to cover the round trip.  However, by plugging in at work, I am able to drive more normally, use climate control and not have to worry about stopping at the store or ATM on the way home later.  I'm nearing 1900 miles on my current tank of gas.  

My first gripe with Arizona law pertaining to the Volt was that, technically, a non-plug-in Prius, Insight or Civic Hybrid was allowed to park in an electric vehicle charging spot, and technically, my car could be towed or fined for parking and plugging in.  This is a great example of where the intent of the law is defeated by the letter of the law.  In fact, if you read the verbiage closely, you'll realize that not even all-electric cars, which are issued the blue sky license place and legally allowed to drive in the HOV lane, are technically not allowed in the plug-in spots, because their license plates say "electric", not "alternative fuel".  So taken at face value, there is literally no OEM vehicle allowed to park in the plug in spot that can actually plug in.  

"28-876. Parking spaces for electric vehicles; civil penalty

A. A person shall not stop, stand or park a motor vehicle within any parking space specially designated for parking and fueling motor vehicles fueled exclusively by electricity unless the motor vehicle is powered by electricity and has been issued an alternative fuel vehicle special plate or sticker pursuant to section 28-2416
B. If a law enforcement officer finds a motor vehicle in violation of this section, the law enforcement officer shall issue a complaint to the operator or other person in charge of the motor vehicle or, if an operator or other person is not present, to the registered owner of the motor vehicle for a civil traffic violation.

C. A person who is found responsible for a violation of this section is subject to a civil penalty of at least three hundred fifty dollars. Notwithstanding section 28-1554, the civil penalties collected pursuant to this subsection shall be deposited in the state general fund."
Source: http://www.azleg.gov/FormatDocument.asp?inDoc=/ars/28/00876.htm&Title=28&DocType=ARS

So, when the chargers were free from cost, I openly and proudly broke the law by parking my cute Li'l Red in the charger spots, logged in to the chargers with my card and plugged my baby in.  My Volt even made the newspaper when it was featured at a press conference celebrating the first official Blink Charger in the state.  Just a few days prior, I had happily visited Monti's, where the new chargers were installed, had a delightful dinner with my friend while patronizing Monti's, and then gained enough electric to make it the movie theater and back (where I wouldn't have made it on just electric otherwise).  

This was my first gripe, but I was assured by Ecotality that this law wouldn't really be enforced and that I would be given no problem parking and plugging in.  Indeed, in the two years I plugged into the public chargers free of cost, I never once received a ticket, warning, or even a second glance from a police officer.

My second gripe is pertaining to the use of the HOV lane.  Motorcyclists and drivers with at least one other person in the car are allowed to use the HOV lane during rush hour.  Notice that I didn't say carpool, because technically you could have a baby in the car and that counts as HOV, even though clearly the baby would not otherwise be driving itself in a separate car. 
The intent of the law is, at best, stretched into being ridiculous.  Then comes along the blue sky license plates.  Initially, the only cars that qualified for alternative fuel license plates were the Prius, Civic Hybrid and Insight.  All-electric vehicles also get blue sky license plates, although, as pointed out above, they are marked as electric, not alternative fuel. Vehicles using natural gas can also qualify for alternative fuel plates.  All of these blue sky license plates are essentially free passes to use the HOV lane with only one person in the car.  This is great!  Except guess which car has never been qualified?  
It's not that the specs of the Volt don't murder the Prius, it's just that our government is too lazy to review and qualify any new vehicles.  They argue that this program was just a pilot program for 10,000 cars and that it was limited to those cars.  What they don't talk about so much is the fact that through attrition of those first 10,000, they were able to release a fresh batch of 2,500 plates, but did so for only the models that were previously qualified.  A new Prius could qualify, but a new Volt using all electric on its commute and averaging well over 100 mpg wasn't even considered.  I tried it anyways, just to see how far I'd get.  The DMV website was quick to stop my attempt, stating simply that my car did not qualify, just as good as a gas-guzzling SUV as far as they're concerned.  

When I first got my Volt, I was working in Phoenix and my commute route would not have benefited much from the use of the HOV lane, so I generally didn't bother to play the civil disobedience card in this regard.  However, with my new, much longer and slower commute, I began considering it all over again.  Mind you, I am a law-abiding citizen, whose worst crime is speeding, which has vastly been reduced with my driving the Volt (since the car clearly suffers in efficiency at high speeds).  But when I'm stopped dead in traffic, and Prius after Prius zips by me in the carpool lane, it just makes me sick to my stomach.  

I get that the Volt isn't all electric, I'm not asking for it to be qualified as such.  But my commutes have been all-electric for the last three years, and will continue to be such with this new company and my ability to plug in.  To date, I have driven 50,685 miles, 32,064 miles on just electric.  The majority of the 18,621 miles on gas can be attributed to trips to Tucson and road trips; one of the great selling points of the Volt is that it can go further on gas, but commute on electric.  The car is great because it does exactly that.  

Anyways, if a baby in the back seat qualifies a driver for the HOV lane because he is carpooling, then I would argue the Volt, while being driven on electric, should also qualify.  Vehicles with the blue sky license plate are essentially pre-qualified, and while I think the Volt should be in this same category, I understand that it has not been.  But if a police officer sees a single individual in the HOV lane, pulls him over and then sees that he has a baby in the back seat, that's something different.  It's like the driver is being verified.  The cop would not issue a ticket, even though it was not clear prior to the pull over that the driver was carpooling.  Why can't a police officer similarly verify that I'm driving on electric, and send me on my way, ticket-free?  It wouldn't be hard; I could show him how much electric I've used since my last charge (and that I've used no gas), my current battery range, and my distance remaining to get to work or home.

This is another glaring example of where the intent of the law is defeated by the letter of the law.  A Prius, zipping along using gas (albeit minimal compared to other vehicles), and even a gas-guzzling SUV with two people in it (which could easily be more emissions and fuel consumption per person than efficient cars with no passengers), are welcomed by the state legislation into the HOV lane.  But a Volt, which the EPA gives a conservative 25 miles on electric per charge before switching to a fuel-efficient gas generator, is condemned to suffer the freeway with the gas guzzlers and not-efficient-enough cars.  

If the intent of the blue-sky alternative fuel license plates allowance in the HOV lanes was to encourage cheapskates to buy foreign-made cars, then I applaud the lawmakers of our state.  But if the intent was to encourage the use of greener vehicles, it missed the mark.  And since my letters to my state congressman have been unfruitful, I don't really see any other way to get my message heard, than to blog and post about it and to act on my obligation of social disobedience.  One can only hope that socially disobedient Volt drivers get pulled over so we can finally point out the absurdity of this whole thing.  No more will I sit in stopped traffic while ridiculous-looking Prii pass me by.

It would be an easy conversation.  I would simply challenge the officer, judge, and whoever else will hear me: What other car can go 1900 miles on 6 gallons of gas?  If I'm driving 50 miles per day on all electric, what really separates my car from the Nissan Leaf?  In what world is outdated technology rewarded and new technology penalized, even when it is better for the environment and the economy?  
"Unjust laws exist: shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once? Men generally, under such a government as this, think that they ought to wait until they have persuaded the majority to alter them. They think that, if they should resist, the remedy would be worse than the evil. But it is the fault of the government itself that the remedy is worse than the evil. It makes it worse. Why is it not more apt to anticipate and provide for reform? Why does it not cherish its wise minority? Why does it cry and resist before it is hurt? Why does it not encourage its citizens to be on the alert to point out its faults, and do better than it would have them?"
(excerpt from "Civil Disobedience" by Henry David Thoreau)

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