Why We Shouldn't Freak Out About A California Ban On Gas And Diesel Engines

Illustration for article titled Why We Shouldnt Freak Out About A California Ban On Gas And Diesel Engines

We keep hearing about cities in Europe and China planning to eventually ban gasoline and diesel cars, and while that may seem scary to car enthusiasts, things got real this week when Bloomberg reported California might hop onto the gas/diesel ban-train. But I don’t think we should be worried, though. Not yet.

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First off, we really don’t have a whole hell of a lot of details on California’s alleged plans to ban vehicles with internal combustion engines (if there’s a plan at all). Bloomberg’s report only has a few lines from Mary Nichols, Chairman of the California Air Resources board. Here’s a look at a few of them:

Governor Jerry Brown has expressed an interest in barring the sale of vehicles powered by internal-combustion engines...“I’ve gotten messages from the governor asking, ‘Why haven’t we done something already?’” Nichols said, referring to China’s planned phase-out of fossil-fuel vehicle sales. “The governor has certainly indicated an interest in why China can do this and not California.”

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I spoke with a spokesperson for the California Air Resources Board to learn more, and, well, I didn’t learn more. All I got was this statement via email:

Given the existential challenge we face, the administration is looking at many, many possible measures – including additional action on electric vehicles – to help rapidly decarbonize the economy and protect the health of our citizens.

So basically, we know California may want to do something similar to what China’s doing. Let’s talk about that first.

What China Is Up To

China is now the number one car market in the world and that probably will not end anytime soon. As such, it’s obvious to expect China to set the tone and policy for the cars the rest of us buy—automakers increasingly are not tailoring their offerings to each and every individual market.

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Right now China, a country beset with chronic air quality problems it is taking aggressive moves to fix, is requiring automakers to sell a certain number of cars with “new-energy” powertrains. Bloomberg describes this in detail:

Under the so-called cap-and-trade policy, automakers must obtain a new-energy vehicle score — which is linked to the production of various types of zero- and low-emission vehicles — of at least 10 percent starting in 2019, rising to 12 percent in 2020...the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology said on its website.

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So if you go to the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology’s website, you’ll notice that “new-energy” refers not just to electric vehicles, but also to hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles and plug-in hybrids. This isn’t all that different from California’s (and other member states’) existing Zero Emissions Vehicles program, which you can read about here.

But what might be different is an outright ban of “traditional energy vehicles,” which China has announced, but laid no timetable for. That ban, as many news outlets have reported, could follow the examples of countries like France and Great Britain—who laid out plans to rid of ICE-powered cars by 2040—and The Netherlands, who plans to get rid of new ICE cars by 2025. .

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Plug-In Hybrids Can Be Great

Illustration for article titled Why We Shouldnt Freak Out About A California Ban On Gas And Diesel Engines
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If you look at some countries’ plans for ousting internal combustion-engine vehicles, you’ll notice that the bans don’t include plug-in hybrids.

The Norwegian EV policy, for example, just says “...all new cars sold by 2025 should be zero (electric or hydrogen) or low (plug-in hybrids) emission.” And according to Reuters, who spoke with Great Britain’s environmental minister Michael Gove, “[Great Britain’s] ban would only apply to conventional rather than hybrid vehicles that have both an electric and combustion engine.” According to CNN, France will also permit hybrids after its 2040 ban date.

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The point here is that an “internal combustion engine ban” may not literally be a ban on internal combustion engines. We don’t know what China’s ban is going to look like, and we know even less about what a California ban will look like.

Nichols did talk to Bloomberg about “[replacing] all combustion with some form of renewable energy,” but based on what we’re seeing from Europe, plug-in hybrids may still be allowed when ink gets put to paper, and that’s a good thing for enthusiasts who think they need the noise and vibrations of an ICE to be happy (and also for folks who like going on long road trips).

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Look, electric cars can be excellent. We all know the Tesla Model S is a world-class automobile, and—though I haven’t driven one yet myself—the Chevrolet Bolt has also received praise from journalists. But I understand that many old-school car enthusiasts want their “fun car” to have pistons and camshafts—for them, plug-in hybrids may remain options in the U.S. for the long haul.

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And there have been some good PHEVs out there, too. The BMW i8, for example, is a great car to drive (so I’ve heard), and the Porsche 918 Spyder can hold its own against damn near anything.

And yes, I get that these are expensive, but they provide examples of plug-ins that can be a hell of a lot of fun, and still give you the opportunity to road-trip and listen to explosions.

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Old Cars May Be Exempt

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If you read that entire previous section thinking “I don’t care; it’s still just not the same,” then maybe you can take solace in the fact that—at least as it was reported by Bloomberg—the potential ban on ICE cars only applies to new vehicles. Here’s what Mary Nichol’s told the site:

“There are people who believe, including who work for me, that you could stop all sales of new internal-combustion cars by 2030. Some people say 2035, some people say 2040,” she said. “It’s awfully hard to predict any of that with precision, but it doesn’t appear to be out of the question.”

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We don’t know what CARB has up its sleeve. For all we know, it could try to get rid of all ICEs from the road, like Great Britain plans to do by 2050. But based on the little info we have (namely, that quote above), there’s a decent chance you can continue driving your fuel-burning Jeep J10 pickup, or your heavily-modded Subaru WRX STI to and from work, even after this supposed ban happens. Whenever it happens.

Plus, keep in mind how much economic damage would occur if California sought to ban all conventional cars. It’s not like every single driver in the state can afford to go out and buy a new hybrid or EV.

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The Timeline Is Far Out There

Photo of Futuristic Car: Jason Torchinsky
Photo of Futuristic Car: Jason Torchinsky
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And that brings me to my last point: we don’t even have a timetable for this. Sure, The Netherlands says 2025, which isn’t that far out. But Britain and France say 2040, and—according to an assistant General manager at Chery Automobile Co. who spoke with Bloomberg, China’s ban could come even “later than 2040.”

Consider that these countries—Britain, France and China—that have much higher urban population densities than we do in many U.S. states (and thus, have a greater need to get rid of localized emissions), and it’s not hard to imagine that such bans will take a long time before permeating throughout the U.S. Yes, California has a number of cities that struggle with smog, but it’s not so much the case for the U.S. as a whole.

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Not to mention, these countries banning ICEs have excellent long-range public transportation systems that can accommodate the travel needs of their citizens. The U.S.’s public transportation system is called the Interstate Highway System. And without a plan for rapid charging, or for adequate infrastructure, who knows when such a ban will be instituted in the U.S., or even in California.

So I say don’t freak out, yet. Plus, the way things are going we may all be dead anyway by 2040. So there’s that.

Sr. Technical Editor, Jalopnik. Always interested in hearing from auto engineers—email me. Cars: Willys CJ-2A ('48), Jeep J10 ('85), Jeep Cherokee ('79, '91, '92, '00), Jeep Grand Cherokee 5spd ('94).

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DISCUSSION

8695Beaterz
8695Beaters

What I don’t like about these proposed combustion engine bans is they are being put in place without answers to some REALLY important questions:

-Is the supply chain for batteries able to handle the sudden increase in demand? After all, Tesla has to build their own battery plant just to increase their own production.

-How will the infrastructure handle the increased demand for power? Power plants, transmission lines...all of that will have to be upgraded to handle the current demands of people plugging in their e-cars. And considering we can’t even get a damn vote on spending money to repair roads (a problem everyone agrees is an issue, but nobody wants to pay for), this seems like an issue that’s going to be ignored until black and brownouts become a real problem

-Side note, if you’re looking to reduce emissions, power plants create far more emissions compared to the energy provided than cars do since most of our electricity still comes from fossil fuels (thanks Obama! No really thanks, the loosening of fracking rules under the Obama administration created the natural gas boom that’s started to push coal out of the market). And yes, California could build nothing but wind and solar farms, but that is going to require a lot of land which is going to get very expensive, very quickly (plus the cost of building those farms and the transmission lines to get that electricity to the masses). More importantly, solar and wind still don’t really have the flexibility of gas plants that fire up under peak usage: which is going to become nighttime when everyone plugs their cars in before they go to bed.

-What’s the long-term cost of owning a fully electric car? Sure gas cars need maintenance, but most cars don’t need a new engine every few years (emphasis on most). EVERY electric car will at some point require a new or refurbished battery pack and considering I work in the auto electronics industry and have seen how those packs are made, I can tell you that you’ll either be paying for labor as a mechanic meticulously checks and replaces each cell, or you’ll be paying for a whole new pack.

-What about the rural areas? Let’s pretend for a second that LA, San Francisco, and San Diego are able to pay for the infrastructure upgrades needed to handle the increased energy demands, and build enough charging stations to handle the cars. What do rural folks do? Remember that California is a big state: is someone going to run a bunch of new transmission lines all the way out to Bakersfield? Will someone else build some charging stations for those new cars? I hate to drag a right-wing slogan into this, but it’s also true: farmland is flyover land and when politicians are making these grand statements, they’re completely ignoring how to deal with rural areas. Just like Cali isn’t LA/SD/SF, France is more than Paris and England is more than London. There is a lot of rural area to cover and if the only new car option is one that can’t handle a day’s worth of driving without needing a recharge, you’ll be screwing over rural residents in a big way. Yes, they’re not going to immediately drop their gas cars and be SOL, but keep in mind that some of these areas took 50 years to get landline telephone service, and most rural areas, even in the USA, have horrific cell service and no cable based internet (get out in the sticks enough and it’s satellite internet or nothing). These are places that can’t even get a cellphone tower, who in the hell is going to put a car charging station in Paint Lick, KY (yes, that’s an actual place)?

Unless politicians can answer these questions, those ICE bans are going to go badly. Really badly. Like “pissed off enough to elect a reality TV star to the Presidency” badly.