The Science of Sustainability

California Pushes to Get Clean Cars on the Road

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The new all-electric Nissan Leaf. (Photo: Josh Cassidy)

This week, California officials are voting on the toughest new regulations in the country to promote cleaner cars. If passed, by 2025, 15% of new cars and trucks sold in the state would have to be powered by batteries, hydrogen fuel cells or other technology that produces little or no air pollution.

These kind of tough mandates have been tried before and they failed. But officials are confident that era of electric vehicle as finally arrived in California. That’s becoming the case in the Bay Area, which has been a strong market for advanced cars since the first Prius came out a decade ago.

“This is a Prius V,” says Joe Testa at Downtown Toyota in Oakland, showing one of several new Prius models that Toyota is releasing this year. “It’s the longer, wagon style, so it has a little more room.” Testa says there’s already a waiting list for the new Prius Plug-in, which comes out in March.

Toyota came out with hybrids ahead of other carmakers, maybe because the company anticipated changes in the market. Or, as some believe, it was due to a California state agency.

“We have been at the forefront of encouraging, and some would people would say forcing, new technologies. The Prius hybrid electric vehicle is an example of that,” says Tom Cackette. Chief Deputy Director of the California Air Resources Board.

California’s Clean Car History

Cackette says to see California’s legacy of shaping national car policy, you have to go back to 1975. The state had a growing smog problem, so the air board required cars to have catalytic converters. The federal government followed. California then tightened air pollution rules for cars. And tightened them again. “And almost in every case, the federal government would follow two, three, four, five years later.”

Today, new cars emit 99 percent less smog than cars did in the 1960s. “It’s probably the most successful environmental program in the world,” says Cackette.

Clean car diaries

What’s it like to drive an electric car on an everyday basis? Check out our new blog with lessons from early adopters.

Now, California has a new goal: dramatically cutting greenhouse gas emissions to fight climate change. Transportation accounts for 40% of the state’s emissions. “The number one strategy to reduce greenhouse gases is these car standards,” he says.

The proposed standards would cut greenhouse gas emissions from new cars in half by 2025. “We actually worked very closely under the federal government under the Obama Administration and we’ve jointly developed the standards. So they won’t just apply in California. But they’ll apply nationwide.”

Meeting these tougher standards will raise car prices by about $1900, but Cackette says those costs would be offset by fuel savings.

Jumpstarting Electric Car Sales

On top of that, California is taking an even bolder step, requiring automakers to sell increasing numbers of clean cars in the state. By 2025, they’d have to sell almost a million and half vehicles that run on electricity or hydrogen fuel cells.

The thing is – California has tried this before. And it didn’t work. “I guess I would call it a little too visionary perhaps,” says Cackette. In 1990, the Air Resources Board mandated that 10 percent of new car sales be “zero emission” cars by 2003.

“Obviously that didn’t happen. The price of gas was cheap in those times. The price of the technologies were high,” he says. The air board loosened the rules to include hybrid cars and cleaner gasoline engines, which he says drove carmakers to develop them faster.

Now, Cackette believes that technology has come of age. Nissan is selling the all-electric Leaf and Chevy is selling the Volt, a plug-in hybrid. And there’s another big difference.

Automakers Onboard

“The car manufacturers were adamantly opposed to the concept of government telling them they needed to build a new type of technology. That’s changed.”

“You are seeing more agreement between automakers and California and the federal government,” agrees Gloria Bergquist, a spokeswoman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers in Washington DC.

“Automakers have invested billions of dollars in these technologies. And so in some ways we have similar interests. Our interest in recouping our investment is now aligned with the societal imperative to get more of these vehicles on the road,” she says.

Bergquist says meeting the mandate calling for carmakers to sell a certain number of clean vehicles will ultimately depend on consumers. “There’s still a concern about what the consumer acceptance of these technologies is going to be and that can make a mandate very scary.”

Groups Push for Tougher Rules

“We think California could be bolder,” says Don Anair is with the Union of Concerned Scientists, a non-profit group that supports even stronger clean car rules.

“We need that technology to advance for the technology cost to come down and make these vehicles accessible to more and more consumers. By having a more aggressive standard, that gives more certainty to investors that California is committed.” Anair wants to see tougher standards sooner rather than later, since it takes 15 years on average for the entire fleet of cars on the road to turn over.

If the new rules are successful, electric cars could be adopted at a much faster pace. Tom Cackette of the Air Resources Board says they’re doing all they can to encourage consumers to buy them, including funding a popular rebate program and working with companies to build an electric car charging infrastructure.

“Right now, you’ve got to sort of have a jumpstart to this whole process and in the absence of a jumpstart, there’s a chance that it will fail,” he says.

A projection of how zero emissions vehicles like electric cars will be 87% of all cars on the road in California by 2025. Source: California Air Resources Board.

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About the Author ()

Lauren is a radio reporter covering environment, water, and energy for KQED Science. As part of her day job, she has scaled Sierra Nevada peaks, run from charging elephant seals, and desperately tried to get her sea legs - all in pursuit of good radio. Her work has appeared on Marketplace, Living on Earth, and NPR's Morning Edition and All Things Considered. You can find her on Twitter at @lesommer.