California is set to enact a ban of new vehicles using internal combustion engines that will take effect in 2035 — a move that could be followed by a dozen or more states that collectively account for as much as a third of automotive sales in the U.S.
The proposed ban will face a vote Thursday by the California Air Resources Board and state officials have given clear reason to believe that it will pass by a strong margin. Daniel Sperling, a CARB board member, told CNN he was “99.9%” confident the “monumental” measure will pass. It has strong backing from other state officials.
“The climate crisis is solvable if we focus on the big, bold steps necessary to stem the tide of carbon pollution,” California Governor Gavin Newsom said in a statement.
The move will force automotive manufacturer to accelerate the adoption of zero-emissions vehicles. Several technologies would qualify, including hydrogen fuel cells, though the industry is expected to place its primary focus on battery-electric vehicles.
Hustling to meet change
Manufacturers have already been ramping up that transition, Detroit-based research firm AlixPartners estimating the industry will spend more than $500 billion this decade to develop and build BEVs. A handful of brands have laid out plans to go entirely electric before the end of this decade, including Stellantis’s Chrysler division and the Volkswagen Group’s Bentley. But the 2035 target is still seen as overly aggressive by many industry leaders.
The California target is “extremely challenging,” John Bozzella, president of the trade group, Alliance for Automotive Innovation, said in an e-mail to the New York Times.
“Whether or not these requirements are realistic or achievable is directly linked to external factors like inflation, charging and fuel infrastructure, supply chains, labor, critical mineral availability and pricing, and the ongoing semiconductor shortage,” Bozzella wrote.
At the other extreme, Scott Hochberg, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity’s Climate Law Institute, said in an e-mail to TheDetroitBureau the CARB proposal “fell short,” adding that the “shift to EVs (needs to come) much sooner or watch our climate stability slip away.”
California leading the movement
California has long led the push for cleaner vehicles, though the Trump administration threatened to limit the state’s ability to set tougher mandates than those put in place by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The Biden administration moved to restore CARB’s authority and the president himself has taken a series of steps encouraging the electrification of the auto industry. He announced a target of having BEVs make up 50% of the new vehicles sold in the U.S. by 2030.
Late last year, Congress approved an infrastructure bill setting aside billions of dollars to help develop a nationwide public EV charging network. Then, last week, Biden signed the new Inflation Reduction Act which authorizes $370 billion in spending and tax credits that, among other things, back a broad shift to renewable energy. The measure also includes an updated EV incentive program — though it sets tough new mandates covering where those vehicles and their batteries are made.
Nearly 10 million battery-electric vehicles are expected to be sold worldwide this year, according to Michael Dunne, CEO of research firm ZoZoGo. The U.S. lags China, where demand is forecast to reach 6 million for all of 2022, with European sales approaching 2.5 million.
Still, the American market will see substantial growth, reaching a milestone 1.1 million, said Dunne. All-electric vehicles made up less than 1% of U.S. demand in 2019, reaching 5% by late 2021. Sales surged another 66% during the first half of 2022, industry data shows.
Golden State not the only proponent
California isn’t the only place moving to phase out sales of gas- and diesel-powered vehicles. Ten European countries, including Great Britain, France, Spain and Norway, have laid out targets for transitioning to BEVs — as has Canada. But the proposed rules CARB will vote on set out the most specific mandates for such a transition.
The proposed rules call for phasing out vehicles using internal combustion engines beginning in the 2026 model year. Initially, 35% of new passenger vehicles — including sedans, coupes, SUVs, CUVs and small pickups — would need to use zero-emissions technologies. That would reach 68% by 2030 and 100% by 2035. However, the quotas do leave room for the sale of plug-in hybrids.
California previously set out mandates calling for a switch to ZEV technology for heavy-duty trucks.
What happens if the ban is approved is uncertain. Automakers could choose to ignore the new rules but at the risk of being banned from the single largest new vehicle market in the United States, California accounting for about 12% of industry volume. They could also limit the products they offer in California to qualified vehicles — which today include models like the Tesla Model Y, Ford Mustang Mach-E and Volkswagen ID.4.
More to come?
But as many as a dozen states, such as New York and Oregon, are planning to vote on similar guidelines this week and many have given clear signal they will follow California’s lead. Five other states have signaled they could follow suit next year. Collectively, these states account for nearly a third of U.S. new vehicle sales, and that would pose serious problems for any manufacturer that refused to confirm to the ban on internal combustion vehicles.
Analyst Jessica Caldwell, of Edmunds, said she is confident the industry will go along with the CARB mandate, noting in a commentary that, “If automakers can pick up production, sufficient investments are made in charging infrastructure and the power grid, and financial incentives can be made more available, this milestone should be achievable — if not surpassable.”
The key question, according to other analysts, is whether consumers will go along. But there are signs that resistance to battery technology is diminishing, said John Murphy, senior auto analyst with Bank of America Research.
The question is whether automakers can overcome some key obstacles, chief among them is the cost of the typical electric vehicle. At an average price around $65,000, it is significantly higher than what consumers pay for conventional vehicles — about $43,000 on average — right now. Bringing costs closer to parity could determine whether BEVs make up 10% of the U.S. market in 2025 or 20%, said Murphy, when he released his annual Car Wars study in June. That, along with an expanded public charging network, improved range and quicker charging times, Murphy said, will be critical to making BEVs a viable alternative.