Big Changes Ahead for Hybrid Owners Using Carpool Lanes

Ten months from now, major changes will begin for drivers of low-emission vehicles in California’s carpool lanes.

Without fanfare, Gov. Arnold, Schwarzenegger signed legislation August 30 that permits 40,000 of the next generation of hybrids – electric motor, rechargeable battery-powered cars with small internal combustion engines – to use High Occupancy Vehicle lanes beginning in January 2012.

Under the new law, the 85,000 hybrids currently allowed to use the lanes will lose the privilege in July 2011.

“It is imperative that we find ways to limit our carbon footprint,” said Sen. Leland Yee, a San Francisco Democrat, in a statement on the passage of his measure, SB 535.

“(This bill) will provide a great incentive for car manufacturers to develop higher emission standards and for individuals to purchase greener vehicles.”

Yee’s bill is sponsored by General Motors, which plans to begin selling its $41,000 Chevy Volt late this year.

The car is classified as an “enhanced advanced technology partial zero-emission vehicle.” A Toyota Prius and other “standard” hybrids, for example, are classified as “advanced technology partial zero-emission vehicles.”

For up to the first 40 miles of travel – seven miles longer than the commute of the average American – the Volt is powered by its onboard lithium battery pack, which can be recharged by plugging the car into a residential household outlet.

After 40 miles, a four-cylinder, premium-fuel using engine kicks in generating electricity enough to power the car another 300 miles.

California is one of seven sales areas where the Volt will initially be offered.

Volkswagen is testing a Golf that is powered by electricity for 30 miles but uses a gasoline engine rather than electric motor. Other automakers are in various stages of development of similar cars.

Owners of the current crop of hybrids have gotten a better resale price if they possess one of the 85,000 yellow-stickers allowing them access to carpool lanes. A comparable result is likely for the 40,000 owners of next generation hybrids permitted to use the lanes.

Expanding the vehicles allowed in carpool lanes beyond carpoolers has caused increased congestion in the lanes. A 2008 report by Caltrans to the federal government found congestion in 54 percent of carpool lanes, up from 46 percent in 2006.

In 2004, as a way to encourage consumers to buy lower emission vehicles, 50,000 hybrids – then a fraction of the auto market — were allowed in carpool lanes. A qualifying vehicle had to meet the standards low-emissions standards and have at least a 45-mile-per-gallon fuel economy.

Subsequent legislation increased the number of allowed hybrids to 85,000 – a cap reached in 2007.

Use of carpool lanes regardless of the number of passengers for current hybrids was set to end in January 2011. Yee’s bill extends the prohibition date to June 30, 2011.

Carpool lane privileges for all-electric vehicles like the Tesla Roadster, the Toyota Rav4 EV — discontinued in 2003 although Toyota is working with Tesla on a new generation – and the hydrogen fuel cell Honda Clarity were also set to expire next year.

Yee’s bill and AB 1500 by Assemblyman Ted Lieu, a Torrance Democrat, allow the all-electric vehicles to continue using carpool lanes until January 1, 2015.

When the initial crop of 50,000 hybrids were given access to the high occupancy lanes in 2004, the federal government had yet to determine if they qualified as “low-emission and energy efficient” vehicles. The bill allowing the hybrids to use the lanes said such use was contingent on federal approval.

Recently, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued a draft rule saying the hybrids using California’s carpool lanes do not qualify.

The federal government has asked California to change its policy, which the state has not.

A similar proviso is contained in Yee’s bill.



  1. Current Prius’ get an extension of 6 months from the old sunset date…nice deal.

    Comment by Mark — 8.31.2010 @ 2:13 pm

  2. Please explain the technology that makes a gasoline motor run on electricity. I know electricity is sometimes called juice but I did not realize the juice was gasoline:

    \"Volkswagen is testing a Golf that is powered by electricity for 30 miles but uses a gasoline engine rather than electric motor. Other automakers are in various stages of development of similar cars.\"

    Comment by D Mitchell — 8.31.2010 @ 3:47 pm

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