California has moved to upend its own — and possibly the country’s — vehicle landscape. The state’s Air Resources Board voted Thursday to approve a policy that will ban sales of gasoline-powered vehicles in favor of electric or other net-zero emissions vehicles by 2035.
The rule, first reported by the New York Times, sets interim targets on the way to the gas-free future: 35 percent of new vehicle sales would need to be free of fossil-fuel emissions by 2026, with the target rising to 68 percent in 2030. More than a dozen states that generally follow California’s lead on vehicle rules could soon follow, making a huge dent in U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. The transportation sector remains the country’s biggest source of climate change-causing emissions, and requiring zero-emissions vehicles would help push toward the ambitious climate targets set by the Biden administration.
“This is great news,” said Benjamin Welle, director of integrated transport and innovation at the World Resources Institute. “California has been a leader in the clean car standards and I think this can give some serious momentum to phase out of [internal combustion engines].”
But it won’t be easy. A closer look at the vehicles used by Californians highlights the challenge of such an ambitious transition, even in a state that’s led the nation in environmental regulations involving vehicles.
California has more than 17 million registered vehicles with model years after 2010, according to a Grid analysis of data from the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles. Eighty-two percent of California’s registered vehicles rely solely on gasoline power, the data show. The remaining 18 percent — 3.2 million vehicles — include battery electric vehicles, such as Teslas, along with hybrid-gasoline models, such as the Toyota Prius. Others in this group include hydrogen fuel-cell and plugin-hybrid vehicles.
Only 3.3 percent of vehicles registered in California are battery electric, the data show. About two thirds of those are Teslas. The data, which has counts for vehicle brand, weight and fuel types by ZIP codes, was last updated in January 2021. That limits analysis of newer vehicles, but the data offers the most comprehensive public record of vehicles on California’s roadways.
“The transition to electric vehicles is already occurring, and this rule helps to speed up that transition,” said Kathy Harris, a clean vehicles and fuels advocate with the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Automakers have already announced $86 billion in investments to EVs as well as an increasing number of EV models — from sedans to SUVs to Trucks — with more announcements coming out every day.”
So far though, a closer look at the data shows that electric vehicles are concentrated in wealthy neighborhoods in Los Angeles and Orange counties, as well as in the Bay Area. The ZIP code with the highest concentrations of Teslas, for example, is centered around Atherton, a wealthy Bay Area enclave adjacent to Stanford University and not far from the headquarters of Apple, Google and Meta.
The average household income there is about $300,000, more than three times that of the typical California ZIP code.
“I’m not sure if it is a tipping point, but it is significant, since California is one of the largest automobile markets in the world,” said Bradley Lane, an associated professor at the University of Kansas’s urban planning program who focuses on EV adoption and policy. “Car makers aren’t going to make a different set of powertrains to sell in California (or any other state that has banned them by 2035, such as New York) versus the rest of the country or the world. ”
California, which accounts for about 12 percent of the U.S. population, had about 39 percent of its all-electric vehicles at the end of 2021, according to the Energy Department. Two other populous states, Florida and Texas, also led in electric vehicles, the data show.
Welle said there is now a real possibility that other states take up the California rule as well; this has happened in the past with vehicle emissions standards. And if climate targets set in the Paris Agreement are to be met, meeting California’s targets is a must.
“The world will need to have a 100-percent phase out of [internal combustion engine] light-duty vehicle sales by 2035,” he told Grid. “So, this is where the world needs to be.” He agreed, though, that new vehicle sales requirements don’t necessarily take all those existing gas-powered vehicles off the road. “Getting it done is another question.”
Thanks to Alicia Benjamin for copy editing this article.