Why We Shouldn't 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.


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.”

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.


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.


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. .


Plug-In Hybrids Can Be Great


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.


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).


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.


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.


Old Cars May Be Exempt


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.”


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.


The Timeline Is Far Out There

Photo of Futuristic Car: Jason Torchinsky

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.


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.

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About the author

David Tracy

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).