California regulators have introduced a new proposal that would ban new gas-powered cars by 2035, a move that would be a global first. If it becomes reality — and if history is any guide when it comes to California and cars — the rest of the U.S. might just be dragged along, too.
The state’s Clean Air Resources Board unveiled its plan to phase out gas-powered vehicles on Thursday, and it's expected to vote on the proposal in August, after a 45-day public comment period and a June 9 public hearing. The rule would require the state to up its zero-emission car sales in the coming years, culminating in the full ban. It comes in response to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s executive order to end the sale of gas-powered cars by 2035, which he issued last September.
Román Partida-López, legal counsel for transportation equity at the non-profit Greenlining Institute, said he expects the rule to pass in a form fairly close to where it is currently, given that CARB has already been in talks with both the advocacy community and the auto industry. “There’s probably some buy-in from both,” he told Protocol.
Car companies have historically had a bit of a tenuous relationship with California regulators, which have imposed more stringent air pollution standards than federal ones. (A number of states have adopted California's standards as well.) Since the Trump administration, though, they have mostly fallen in line. For instance, they gave up on a high-profile lawsuit over California’s ability to set its own emissions in February 2021. California is such a large market for vehicles that not only do its policies inform what kinds of cars are sold nationwide, they also tend to be echoed by federal policy.
The proposal wouldn't apply to sales of used vehicles, which is how most people in the U.S. buy their cars). It also wouldn't require cutting gas-power vehicle sales cold turkey on Jan. 1, 2035. Starting with the 2026 model year, 35% share of new cars, SUVs and small pickup trucks sold in California must be zero-emission. After that, the required share would ratchet up yearly. Of the total, 20% can be plug-in hybrids.
Partida-López said that while the rule is a step in the right direction — and could “set the standard of what electric vehicles could look like post-2026,” when the current, less ambitious clean cars rule sunsets — it does not go far enough in terms of delivering on the state’s environmental justice goals.
“Currently, the rule itself just addresses the status quo approach,” Partida-López said, in reference to the number of automakers that have already committed to selling only zero-emissions vehicles by 2035 or thereabouts. “It’s building on the commitments that automakers have already made, and not necessarily being transformative or pushing them to do better.”
The rule in its current form would likely result in one major boon for low-income communities: In expanding the number of EVs on the market, it will inevitably expand the used EV market as well, which has remained relatively thin even as the number of them on the market has swelled in recent years. But Partida-López would like to see more intentionality, saying the rule could include formal requirements that automakers work to increase accessibility and deployment of EVs in low-income communities, including access to charging networks and other avenues. There's extra urgency to do that given that those same communities often face disproportionate impacts from air pollution from gas-powered cars zipping down roads and over highways nearby.
These issues could also factor into people's livelihoods. Ride-hailing companies, for instance, have said they want to transition to EVs in the coming decades. But infrastructure as well as the cost of EVs have so far created barriers to actually getting drivers in zero-emission cars.
An alliance of automobile manufacturers expressed qualified support in the wake of the proposal, saying that they are committed to electrifying the transportation sector. They also expressed concerns, however, about whether the right pieces are in place to meet the rule’s timeline. The lack of charging infrastructure and competition for critical minerals could make the transition a little rocky. Partida-López acknowledged this is a potential challenge as well, but argued that aligning regulations with the automakers plans will incentivize the state to address these issues sooner than later.