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California Should Just Ban Fuel-Burning Car Sales Already

Part of California’s incremental ZEV plans was promoting hydrogen cars, with the Governator filling up a fuel cell Highlander in my hometown back in 2004.
Part of California’s incremental ZEV plans was promoting hydrogen cars, with the Governator filling up a fuel cell Highlander in my hometown back in 2004.
Photo: Getty Images (Getty Images)

California announced Wednesday that it would ban the sale of anything but zero-emissions cars come 2035. Certainly, that’s more than I, personally, have done to cut down greenhouse gas emissions, but it’s far from a radical move.

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Let me begin with the timeframe. 2035? This is a joke. California will not exist in 2035, at least a California that has not been entirely burned to the ground. Telling a Californian in 2035 that they can’t buy a new Silverado will be funny to them, as they survey the still-smoldering ruins of what used to be their suburban development. Any thought of preserving “air quality” by stopping people from buying Duramaxes or whatever will be a bit of a moot point when ash is constantly raining from the sky everywhere south of Garberville. Hell, in Garberville, too.

While we are here, let us review the announcement in full, as we reported this morning:

The transportation sector is responsible for more than half of all of California’s carbon pollution, 80 percent of smog-forming pollution and 95 percent of toxic diesel emissions – all while communities in the Los Angeles Basin and Central Valley see some of the dirtiest and most toxic air in the country.

[...]

Following the order, the California Air Resources Board will develop regulations to mandate that 100 percent of in-state sales of new passenger cars and trucks are zero-emission by 2035 – a target which would achieve more than a 35 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and an 80 percent improvement in oxides of nitrogen emissions from cars statewide. In addition, the Air Resources Board will develop regulations to mandate that all operations of medium- and heavy-duty vehicles shall be 100 percent zero emission by 2045 where feasible, with the mandate going into effect by 2035 for drayage trucks. To ensure needed infrastructure to support zero-emission vehicles, the order requires state agencies, in partnership with the private sector, to accelerate deployment of affordable fueling and charging options. It also requires support of new and used zero-emission vehicle markets to provide broad accessibility to zero-emission vehicles for all Californians. The executive order will not prevent Californians from owning gasoline-powered cars or selling them on the used car market.

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As you will note, there is nothing in there that bans anyone from driving a smog-choked 1975 Toyota Celica. All it bans is Folsom Lake Ford from letting them trade it in on a new Raptor. Hell, I’m sure Joe Flatbrim could find the time to drive over to Vegas or Reno or Medford to buy whatever full-size pickup he desires. If he is going for a heavy-duty vehicle, he’s still got an extra ten years, and even then there’s nothing stopping him from going on Craigslist to buy a coal-rolling dozer from someone else.

That’s the other problem with the announcement. There’s nothing about it that couldn’t—or shouldn’t—be implemented tomorrow. If clean air is the goal, that’s all the more reason to act sooner rather than later. Getting EVs or ZEVs on a lot in California isn’t impossible even with the current offerings from major manufacturers. Well, I imagine Maserati dealers might have to find some alternate lines of work, but that’s not the greatest injustice.

I shouldn’t freely shit on this measure from California—again, it’s something—but even the state knows it’s weak. From Governor Newsom’s office:

By the time the new rule goes into effect, zero-emission vehicles will almost certainly be cheaper and better than the traditional fossil fuel powered cars. The upfront cost of electric vehicles are projected to reach parity with conventional vehicles in just a matter of years, and the cost of owning the car – both in maintenance and how much it costs to power the car mile for mile – is far less than a fossil fuel burning vehicle.

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This is also bullshit. There are plenty of desirable, affordable EVs in production today. They’re just not sold in America. Were Newsom to hit dealers with a ban like this tomorrow, I assure you Honda would think much more seriously about bringing the wonderful Honda E over here. It was in the cards a few years ago anyway. It wouldn’t be a stretch to think the same of other non-US EVs like the VW ID.3. (That one needs all the help it can get.)

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It’s abundantly clear that a 2035 mandate isn’t pushing much of a boundary for anyone involved, be it the manufacturers, the consumers, or the regulators. Shift 2035 to 2021 and I’ll be impressed.

Raphael Orlove is features editor for Jalopnik.

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DISCUSSION

Doing what they’re doing is a far more complicated policy decision than you’re identifying - with plenty of complications and problems that make 2035 an aggressive deadline. Just a few of them:

1. What’s the cheapest electric car available? What is its range? Will it be affordable? Or will only rich families get the benefit of a new car after this decision?

2. Will that cost of a cheap electric car stay the same, or go up if this announcement is made immediately?

3. What about people who don’t have access to parking with access to electricity (street, parking garage, etc.). Will they simply be unable to buy a new car?

4. What will the impacts on the economy be if almost every major auto manufacturer has to stop selling gas cars in California? How many dealer and gas station and mechanics jobs will be lost, or on the chopping block?

5. How many fast charging stations are there? Are there enough if every new car is now electric? Or will this result in line ups around multiple blocks?

6. Can California’s electrical grid cope with the added stress of all these new electric cars?

7. Are there enough people in the State with experience at maintaining and fixing electric cars to address the need?

8. How do you implement this so that people don’t simply go to Oregon or Utah to buy their cars?

9. What about cars where this no electric option? There are no Electric Minivans. Or 7 seat vehicles. Or pickups (yet). Or semi-trucks. What will people who needs those sorts of vehicles do? Are contractors, and large families and people who need to tow things suppose to be out of luck on finding a new car at all?

Look - what they’re doing is essential. And it’s very, very aggressive. To suggest that they just ‘do it now’ betrays a lack of deep thought on the issue. The simple fact is that - until those questions can be answered, and answered well, the best approach is to encourage - through incentives - behavior to change. To offer bridging solutions like PHEVs. And to get people do make the switch on their own, when they can and to the extent they can. Policy is hard. Good policy is harder.