Is California About to Give Up the Driver’s Seat on Electric Vehicles?

December 13, 2021
Joel Muniz/Unsplash
David Reichmuth
Senior Engineer, Clean Transportation Program

California has long been seen as a leader, both in the US and globally, in pushing ahead clean transportation technologies. This leadership was born of necessity, with the state enduring decades of smoggy air linked largely to vehicle exhaust. One of the most important actions California has taken to clean the air was the adoption of Zero Emissions Vehicle (ZEV) regulations, starting in 1990. The ZEV regulations, adopted and enforced by the California Air Resources Board (CARB) ensure that automakers develop and market an increasing share of vehicles without tailpipe emissions, such as battery electric and fuel cell electric vehicles. California’s rules are important not just for the state; fourteen other states have adopted California’s ZEV standards. Those 14 states represent over 35 percent of new car sales in the United States.

Californians now find themselves on the frontlines of fighting climate change and its impacts will only get worse if we continue to increase the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Given this crisis, one would expect CARB to accelerate the sales requirements in the ZEV standards currently under development for model year 2026 through 2035 vehicles. However, instead CARB has released draft regulations that reduce the ZEV requirements from those proposed earlier in the year and these requirements fall well short of what is needed to limit damage from climate change and air pollution.

Proposed weak ZEV standards will mean more gasoline cars on the road

Cars and trucks now last an average of 12 years, meaning that many of the vehicles sold at the end of this decade will be on the road in 2040 and beyond. That’s why it’s critical to reduce the number of new gasoline vehicles as soon as possible. However, the draft ZEV regulations mean that a car company could have nearly 80 percent of their model year 2026 cars and trucks fueled by gasoline only. Even by model year 2030, an automaker could comply with as little as 49 percent ZEVs. Based on current vehicle sales projections, I calculate that the change from the October proposal to the draft ZEV regulations would mean over 700,000 more gasoline cars and trucks on the road by 2030 and a likely increase of 40 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions if automakers only comply with the minimum requirements. While the proposed rules provide crediting provisions that might encourage some automakers to deliver more than the minimum number of vehicles, in the past, many traditional automakers have shown little interest in doing more than the bare minimum to comply with ZEV rules.

This slow rollout of zero emissions vehicles is also at odds with CARB’s own assessment of needed emissions reductions. In its Mobile Source Strategy, CARB experts call for ZEV sales to be over 40 percent by 2026 to meet emissions targets, well above the minimums set forth in the draft ZEV regulation.

The draft 2026-2035 ZEV regulations will allow many more gasoline cars to be sold in the first 5 years of the rule, than what CARB initially proposed in the fall.

Californians want higher standards, not lower ones

In response to the October ZEV workshop, CARB received 36 public comment submissions. Not one comment letter asked for lower ZEV targets, even among automakers, while many of the comments (including those of UCS) argued for CARB to set ZEV sales requirements higher. Supporters of higher ZEV standards include 9 members of the California Legislature and a group of 166 scientists and experts. Given the public record that only shows support for higher standards, why is CARB now moving in the opposite direction?

Is California a leader no more?

California has a history of leadership on reducing air pollution and climate-changing emissions. But if it goes forward with these ZEV standards, the state will be clearly behind other jurisdictions. Because of stronger vehicle standards, electric vehicle sales in other countries are now exceeding 20 percent. For example, in the UK, battery electric vehicles made up 19 percent of all new cars sold and total plug-in sales (including plug-in hybrids) were 28 percent of cars sold. Similarly in Germany, sales of electric vehicles in 2021 have jumped up to 24 percent of all new passenger cars and trucks, despite being at less than 5 percent only 2 years ago. And even Toyota, while resisting ZEV action in the USannounced that they are committed to 100 percent electrification in Europe.

California simply cannot claim to be a leader on dealing with the climate crisis if the state sets a 2026 standard below what automakers are already delivering today in other countries.

The sharp increase in plug-in vehicle sales in Germany shows that auto manufacturers can quickly ramp up sales in response to strong regulations.

CARB needs to get back in the driver’s seat and protect the well-being of Californians

Over the past year we have seen a steady stream of public statements from automakers about their plans to invest in a transition to an electric future. But at the same time, industry laggards like Toyota and Stellantis (the successor to Chrysler that makes brands like Ram, Dodge, and Jeep) have come out against regulations that would hold automakers to their public commitments. 

California has a unique role in setting vehicle standards, as it is specifically authorized by federal legislation to set emissions regulations that are stronger than the federal rules. CARB needs to use its full authority under the Clean Air Act to set ZEV regulations that ensure a rapid transition to zero-emissions vehicles. Climate change and air pollution continue to threaten the health and well-being of all Californians. A rapid transition to zero-emissions vehicles is a critical solution to address the largest source of climate pollution in our state. CARB has long played an important leadership role reducing vehicle pollution and carbon emissions, but a weaker ZEV rule threatens this leadership. The agency needs to listen to the science of climate change and look at the rapid acceleration of ZEV technology here and abroad. It is clear that a stronger ZEV regulation is both justified and needed.