How likely is it that your next vehicle might be an electric car? California just increased the odds. On Jan. 27, the California Air Resources Board, a powerful state agency with a history of setting first-in-the-nation clean air and climate regulations, voted 9-0 on a package of sweeping “clean car” rules that are expected to help reshape the U.S. auto industry.
The chairman of the board, Mary Nichols, oversaw the enactment of these new rules, which require that 15 percent of all new cars sold in California by 2025 emit little or no pollution and that the state reduce emissions of smog-forming pollutants by 75 percent. The rules are expected to result in 1.4 million zero- and low-emission vehicles — electric, plug-in hybrid, and hydrogen fuel cell — reaching California auto showrooms over the next dozen years, compared to roughly 10,000 on the road there today. And it’s a near certainty that once built, those models won’t just be sold in California, but in the other 49 states, as well.
In an interview with Yale Environment 360 contributor Paul Rogers, Nichols — who has headed the board since 2007 — explains why California has consistently led the U.S. in passing the toughest air pollution and vehicle mileage standards, why Detroit automakers have decided to endorse California’s new rules, and why U.S. and international car makers are on the verge of a clean-car revolution. “Auto manufacturers have finally come to the conclusion that their future lies in very efficient, very clean vehicles,” says Nichols.
Yale Environment 360: Why did California pass these rules?
Mary Nichols: California has been working on these rules for decades. Really, this is just the latest version of a program that has been in effect since the 1960s, which began because we were the first place to discover smog and to begin to take action to deal with the problem of pollution caused by motor vehicles. But this most recent round of standards is one that reflects a real change in viewpoint about what the future of our transportation system is going to look like. Basically we have concluded that when you look at the rates of growth in travel and the even greater problems of energy use, dependence on imported petroleum, as well as global warming and our contribution to it, we’re going to need a fleet of vehicles that is not primarily running on conventional fuels. And so we’re looking for ways to help speed up the transition to a fleet of vehicles that are extremely clean and efficient. And we’re setting standards for their design that help use the power of the California marketplace to do that.
e360: And what impact do you think these rules will have on the entire auto industry in the United States?
Nichols: Well, California buys about 10 percent of all the new cars that are sold every year. But we have even more influence than that over the design of future vehicles because every car manufacturer from the largest to the most innovative start-ups uses us as a design laboratory because they know that Californians know cars and they really like them. The term “love affair with the car” might be an exaggeration, but not too much.
e360: So you see these rules as changing the way all Americans drive, not just Californians?
Nichols: Yes, clearly cars that are manufactured for the California marketplace also get sold outside of California. But we also have 13 states that followed California’s lead automatically. They’ve signed up for the California car program. Those states include all the states in the Northeast plus Oregon and New Mexico. They are going to be requiring that all the cars sold in their states meet California’s standards.