Updated from 6:45 a.m. EST with Wahlman's response to reader questions. The response follows the end of the original article.NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- The most coveted prize for the California car buyer is the ability to drive solo in the carpool lane. There are two ways to do this: 1. Buy an all-electric or natural gas car. Let's say that you want to spend less than $35,000. Then your most available all-electric choices are Nissan LEAF and the Ford Focus Electric. The problem with these cars is that most people shun them because they are -- rightfully -- afraid of running out of electricity, and they may be stuck on the freeway. With only approximately 75 miles range, sales of these cars are bleak for a reason. 2. Buy a car that's electric for the first 6 to 38 miles, and then a gasoline engine kicks in to ensure that you can drive and refuel the car just like any conventional petrol car. This gets you some of the electric car benefits, but none of the "range anxiety" worry of the all-electric cars. The cars in this latter category in the market today are General Motors' ( GM) Chevrolet Volt, the Toyota ( TM) Prius Plug-In, and two models from Ford ( F) just hitting the market now, called C-Max Energi and Fusion Energi. Net after-tax rebates, all of these cars sell for around $30,000. As evidenced by the 2012 sales data, this latter group of cars vastly outsell the all-electrics -- and sales are growing rapidly. So what's the problem? Just buy the Volt, the Prius Plug-In, or any of the Fords, and drive alone in the California carpool lane! No? Actually, while this will work just fine right now, this convenient party is coming to an end -- fast. You see, only 40,000 of these permits will be provided. The program only started recently, and by early October 2012 approximately 6,000 had been handed out. Now that Ford is entering the market this month, the pace should accelerate and I would be shocked if these permits don't dry up by the second half of 2013. So what happens when these coveted 40,000 permits are exhausted? Will you then be forced to buy a potentially more expensive ($50,000 to $100,000) Tesla ( TSLA) Model S? Or will you live with range anxiety in a car that may only go 75 miles on a charge, with no back-up safety valve?
Actually, no. In a story that is all but certain to set the automotive world ablaze in strife, California's regulatory bureaucrats are on track to grant what appears to be a special status that in practice will apply to only one car -- made by BMW, nonetheless. Yes, you read that right. After some time in the second half of 2013, the only car that will be sold in California with a gasoline back-up engine, and still eligible for the carpool lane sticker, will be a BMW. Make no mistake: This is the ultimate trump card in the California market, and it would crush GM, Ford and Toyota -- among others. The BMW model in question is called the i3. It will be sold in two versions -- one all-electric, and the other in a hybrid form where a small gasoline engine ensures you will never get stuck. But you will still be able to get a sticker to drive in the California carpool lane, even if the 40,000 hybrid stickers are gone, just like a pure electric car such as the Tesla. I inquired with multiple people at the California Air Resources Board about this, and the details remain a little murky. There was a preliminary decision about this BMW exemption taken in January 2012, but the final approval to deliver this market-crushing loophole to BMW is subject to final verification, probably sometime in 2013 -- once BMW delivers the first final, completed car. The BMW i3 has undergone testing for a long time already, and there are plenty of pictures of the car being "caught" in public available on the Internet for all of us to see. The factory is being built in Leipzig, Germany, and the project leader is Frank Weber. Yes, the same Frank Weber who was in charge of the Chevrolet Volt in Detroit 2006-2011. BMW hired him to Munich in April 2011. What is so special about the BMW i3 that will allow it to be the only car of its kind to obtain the ultimate in California car sales trump card, the carpool lane sticker? The details here are a bit murky, but here is one thing: The range for the gasoline tank must not be larger than the all-electric range of the battery.
Let's say the BMW i3 can go an average of 100 miles on pure electricity. If the gasoline engine operates at 40 MPG after that, the gasoline tank can only be 2.5 gallon (2.5 x 40 = 100). So this car will not be the one you will likely drive from LA to San Francisco. It will, however, be an ideal commuter car (for the carpool lane) where you would know you would never get stuck if you ran out of juice. This market is a California goldmine. BMW should just name the car "1849" and be done with it.