SEMA Needs a Win: EV Conversion Bill
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SEMA Needs a Win: EV Conversion Bill

SEMA crowd

A SEMA-sponsored bill in California would give drivers a $2000 rebate to convert their gas-powered car to EV. They need it to pass.

California Senate Bill 301 (SB 301) is a bill proposing a $2000 rebate to help cover the costs of an EV conversion. The bill is sponsored by the world’s largest group of organized car builders, tuners, and customizers – the Specialty Equipment Manufacturers’ Association (SEMA) – that claims, in its authors’ words, “to support small businesses and maintain its rich car culture, while assisting consumers that want to convert their vehicles to cleaner engines.”

SEMA is claiming that the bill would make ZEV ownership more accessible to more people – but that’s not what this is. What SEMA’s sponsorship of SB 301 is really about is saving face in front of its 10,251 registered members after the association suffered through the very public, very bitter failure of the last highly-publicized bill it sponsored, the RPM Act, late last year.

The RPM Act, which was co-sponsored by PRI and lobbied for by racing legends like seven-time NASCAR champion Richard “the King” Petty and three-time NHRA Top Fuel champion Antron Brown, sought clarity on an EPA proposal from 2015 that would have tacitly banned racers’ ability to modify street cars into dedicated, “off-road use only” race cars.

The RPM Act never even made it to a vote. “Key negotiators in Congress could not reach an agreement on bill language that balanced the need for federal law to protect racers and motorsports parts businesses from EPA enforcement with reasonable measures to ensure that race parts are not used on vehicles driven on roads and public highways,” a spokesperson for SEMA explained.

SEMA President and CEO Mike Spagnola, in a statement issued after the failure of the bill, was in disbelief. In several outlets, he was quoted defensively, saying that, “the RPM Act was one of the most bipartisan bills in the 117th Congress with over 165 lawmakers cosponsoring the legislation. SEMA and PRI will leverage the momentum we built during this congressional session, assess the current challenges the industry faces, and chart a new path forward for the industry’s advocacy efforts at both the federal and state levels.”

That new path forward, SEMA realizes, is electric – but will SEMA be able to drag its members into the electric future?

SB 301 Won’t Help Anybody Who Needs Help

Image courtesy Nissan; SEMA 2022.

Let’s make one thing very clear as we discuss SB 301: this bill will have absolutely zero impact on the number of EVs on the road.

Unlike a propane or ethanol conversion kit – which can be completed for something like $4000-7500, depending on who you ask – an EV conversion can run into the tens of thousands of dollars, often much more than the price of a used EV or hybrid like a Nissan LEAF, Chevy Volt, or Toyota Prius. To a low-to-middle income (LMI) family, that $2000 could deliver 15-20% off the price of a used, electrified vehicle, more affordable, sustainable transportation, and cleaner, healthier air for the communities that need it most. That family stretching to afford a $15,000 used EV or hybrid won’t be helped by a $2000 rebate to convert their existing car to electric.

If the California bill was actually intended to reduce emissions, that $2000 could be put to use in even better ways than a used car – like a $500 rebate on a well-built electric scooter plus a $1500 Uber or Lyft ride share credit, which would allow LMI Californians better, more sustainable access to transportation for short trips (more than half of all US car trips are less than 3 miles) while making longer trips more affordable. An Uber or Lyft credit could also be redeemable only by drivers in EVs or hybrids, and would directly benefit “gig economy” workers in the process.

Who really stands to benefit from an EV conversion rebate, on the other hand? Other than rich guys building one-off Bentleys who go into toxic shock whenever someone mentions taxes, the obvious answer is, of course: SEMA.

SEMA Desperately Needs a Win

Image courtesy Stellantis; SEMA 2022.

SEMA doesn’t just need a win now, SEMA has needed a win since last spring. The organization was already staggering from the 1-2-3 combination blow of industry giants GM, Ford, and Hyundai (now the world’s third-largest carmaker) abandoning the show in May.

To the world outside of SEMA, GM, Ford, and Hyundai – brands that have publicly committed to an all-electric future – walking away from SEMA signaled that the industry was doubling down on ideas like electrification, sustainability, and most of all, TSLA-like stock prices for the companies’ shareholders. SEMA, it seemed, represented none of those things.

Inside of SEMA, the situation seemed more dire. On the floor, members could be seen wearing shirts like this one, from 1320Video, proclaiming, “Electric Cars Have No Soul” or Dave Freiburger’s equally “clever” t-shirts which read, “Gasoline Forever.” Meanwhile, the organization was playing a different tune, issuing a press release entitled, “2022 SEMA Show to Highlight Vehicle Electrification Trends and Technologies” announcing plans to dedicate an “expanded SEMA Electrified section” entirely to EVs.

Critics would go on to say that the EVs were relegated, rather than dedicated to the new section, and as SEMA’s PR people pushed a progressive, e-curious vibe to the outer world, the rest of the show – the vast, sweeping majority of the show – powered on with its turbocharged street racers and lifted, chromed-out diesel pickups.

Whatever else might be said of SEMA’s push to embrace EVs, it hasn’t been enough, yet, to convince Ford, GM, or Hyundai to announce a “come back” for 2023. As such, and with 2022 coming to a close, the SEMA group needed a win.

The RPM Act was supposed to be the “big win.” A win that showed SEMA members that the association was still that capable, competent lobbying arm of the aftermarket industry-as-a-whole, who could deftly leverage the nearly $50 billion of revenue generated by its members to influence and sway lawmakers and protect its members’ interests and, indeed, protect their livelihoods in the face of misguided environmentalists who believe a spec Miata represented an existential threat to Mother Earth.

SEMA didn’t get that win.

SB 301, meanwhile? California SB 301 is almost certain to go down as a win for SEMA … but that has less to do with SEMA crafting a clever argument filled with logic, pathos, and wit, and more to do with the fact that a bill very similar to SB 301 was already passed. In 2022.

AB 3250

Classic Mini Cooper conversion by Swindon Powertrain; via Hagerty.

California’s lower house, the California Assembly, unanimously passed a bill that would encourage residents to swap an all-electric powertrain into a car that began life with an internal-combustion engine. That bill was known as AB (for “Assembly Bill”) 3250, and was every bit as useless as SB 301 is in terms of actually helping get more families into EVs.

SEMA also sponsored this bill, but it was much less important to the organization’s broader membership than the RPM Act, and only seems to be rising in prominence after both the RPM Act failed and US President Joe Biden took to the road in an electrified Ford F-100 restomod along with California’s most famous car-obsessive, Jay Leno.

This is good for SEMA, because they’ll probably get this small win in California. When they do, it will join other California programs like the state-wide Clean Vehicle Rebate Program (CVRP) and the San Francisco Bay Area’s Clean Cars for All Program (CCAP), both of which provide remuneration checks (not rebates) to applicants who trade qualifying older, ICE-powered cars in on new electric ones. Those CVRP checks can be for anywhere between $750 and $4000 as it is, while the CCAP also provides qualified applicants direct rebates of between $5000 and $9500 with an additional $2000 for the installation of a Level 2 home EV charger.

If you don’t live in California – well, maybe you’ll get an IRA tax credit … which California residents also get, on top of everything listed, above.

While you seethe about that one, you can watch that episode of Jay Leno’s garage we mentioned earlier, then let us know what you think of SEMA’s $2000 EV conversion rebate in the comments section at the bottom of the page.

President Biden & Jay Leno Drive the Ford F100 Eluminator EV


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