President Joe Biden is facing a call from California’s two U.S. senators to set a timetable for phasing out sales of new vehicles using internal combustion engines.
The White House already was getting ready to address the rollback of the federal Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards approved by former President Donald Trump. The relaxation of the CAFE rules has been tied up in court, as has a move by the former administration to eliminate California’s ability to set unique carbon dioxide emissions standards. The state planned to use its federal waiver to push for its own phase-out of gas and diesel technology.
California’s two Democratic Senators, Dianne Feinstein and Alex Padilla, sent a letter to Biden asking the new president “to follow California’s lead and set a date by which all new cars and passenger trucks sold be zero-emission vehicles,” according to a report by the Reuters news service.
California has long had the ability to set unique targets for traditionally defined pollutants, including smog-causing oxides of nitrogen. It was given additional authority under the Obama administration to also address carbon dioxide emissions which are linked to global warming.
Under first-of-their-kind rules, California regulators last June announced new rules requiring a major shift from gas and diesel to zero-emissions battery and hydrogen technology for new vans and trucks sold in the state, starting in 2024. In September, California Governor Gavin Newsom took things a step further by signing an executive order that would ban the sale of both cars and trucks running on gas or diesel by 2035. New Jersey officials offered a recommendation to do the same shortly after.
That would place California on a rapidly expanding list of countries and regions moving to renewable transportation technology. Great Britain recently sped up its own phase out of internal combustion engines. Automakers will be allowed to sell only hybrid and zero-emissions vehicles starting in 2030. By 2035, the country would narrow that to hydrogen fuel-cell and pure battery-electric vehicles.
Looking for smoke signals
Whether the Biden administration will set a timetable for phasing out internal combustion engines is unclear. But the president signaled his intent to tighten mileage standards, reversing a move by his immediate predecessor.
Trump not only eliminated California’s carbon dioxide emissions waiver but rolled back the CAFE guidelines set under his predecessor, Barack Obama. The original 5% increase in mileage was trimmed to just 1.5%. Both moves have been tied up in court.
Those moves triggered a split within the auto industry, Some manufacturers, including Toyota and General Motors, openly supported the Trump move. Others, including Ford, Honda, Volkswagen and BMW, struck their own compromise with California regulators. That deal called for tougher mileage and emissions targets than the Trump plan – but eased back from the standards California initially called for.
Shift in power, shift in direction
Since the presidential election set in motion a shift in power, several automakers have revised their positions. Notable among those was General Motors which now supports the California compromise. In January, GM laid out a goal of switching entirely to zero-emission vehicles by 2035.
“We believe the national baseline should, at an absolute minimum, be built around the technical lead set by companies that voluntarily advanced their agreements with California,” Sens. Padilla and Feinstein said in their letter to Biden today.
The White House has so far not indicated when or how it might act on the California waiver and the Trump-era fuel economy cuts. It is believed to be looking for a broad compromise that could bring together environmentalists and automakers alike – much as what happened with the original, Obama-era CAFE mandate.
Finding a compromise
The auto industry is, to a large degree, shifting towards electrified powertrain technologies that could yield significant improvements in fuel economy. But there are big differences in how they plan to proceed. GM, Bentley and several others, want to completely phase out internal combustion technology during the next 10 to 15 years. Others, like Toyota, see a future using a mix of hybrid, hydrogen and BEV powertrains.
In February, the Alliance for Automotive Innovation — a trade group representing most of the auto industry — signaled support for a mileage compromise.
There is a broad industry consensus, however, that one uniform national standard is needed, rather than maintaining separate federal and California rules. In fact, 13 other states now follow the California rules, rather than the less stringent federal targets. They represent about 40% of annual U.S. new car sales.
While it is far from certain what path the Biden administration will take, the president has shown an interest in promoting zero-emissions technology. In January, the president called for replacing the entire federal fleet of 650,000 cars and trucks “with clean electric vehicles made right here in America made by American workers.” During his campaign for the White House, meanwhile, Biden had laid out a plan to have 500,000 EV charging stations available by the end of this decade.