California is on the brink of dealing another blow to the future of the internal combustion engine.
The California Air Resources Board is expected to adopt a rule as soon as Thursday that would ban the sale of new gas-powered cars by 2035. The state will also set interim targets requiring 35% of the new vehicles sold be emissions-free by 2026, and 68% by 2030, ensuring a smooth transition. (Today, emissions-free vehicles account for 12% of new vehicle sales in the state.)
“California will now be the only government in the world that mandates zero-emission vehicles,” Margo Oge, who led the Environmental Protection Agency’s transportation emissions program under three separate administrations, told the New York Times.
But the state may soon have company, if history is any indication. California has long been a trendsetter in cleaning up transportation, creating tailpipe emissions standards that are stricter than those of the federal government and setting aggressive zero-emission vehicle sales goals even before this latest development. More than a dozen states have adopted California's standards.
This led to a firestorm when the Trump administration challenged the state’s ability to set its own standards and led to a protracted legal battle. In a decision backed by 19 other states and the District of Columbia, though, the Biden administration reinstated California’s ability to set its own vehicle standards in May.
At least 12 states could adopt California’s new mandate in the near future, and several more are likely to follow suit in the next year, according to the Times. That would mean roughly one-third of the U.S. auto market would end the sale of gas-powered vehicles by 2035. That could speed up the electric vehicle transition currently underway.
Most of the large automakers that initially supported the Trump administration’s challenge have also pivoted to recognize the state’s authority since the former president left office. Toyota became the latest when the company’s North America chief administrative officer Christopher Reynolds wrote in a letter to CARB and Gov. Gavin Newsom on Tuesday that “[a]lthough we have shared challenges before us, we are committed to emission reductions and vehicle introductions consistent with CARB’s programs.”
The transportation sector represents the largest share of emissions in the U.S. California’s rule could have a major effect on reducing those emissions, especially if adopted more widely. (For comparison, it's much more aggressive than President Joe Biden's executive order calling for half of all new vehicles sold in the U.S. to be electric or plug-in hybrid by 2030.)
However, an association representing large U.S. and foreign automakers expressed skepticism about the news. John Bozzella, president of the Alliance for Automotive Innovation, told the New York Times that meeting the mandate would be “extremely challenging” due in large part to factors outside automakers’ control, such as “inflation, charging and fuel infrastructure, supply chains, labor, critical mineral availability and pricing, and the ongoing semiconductor shortage.”
While California may be ahead of national policy, efforts by the Biden administration and Congress could put the state's target even more within reach. The Inflation Reduction Act includes tax incentives for EVs and the bipartisan infrastructure law has $7.5 billion set aside for EV charging infrastructure. The administration also released new charging standards to help standardize the nation's growing network and encourage drivers to buy EVs free of range anxiety.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated when the Biden administration reinstated California’s ability to set its own vehicle standards. This story was updated on Aug. 24, 2022.