It sounds like the most monumental change in cars in our lifetimes. But it’s no big deal.
California has moved to ban the sale of new gasoline-powered cars after 2035. Massachusetts and Washington quickly followed. Now, New York has joined.
The Associated Press expects legislators and regulators in Oregon and Vermont to follow suit.
It sounds like a sea change in the way Americans buy cars. But those who follow every move of the auto industry shrugged the news off. Believe it or not, banning new gas-powered cars after 2035 is almost irrelevant.
The last time California updated its car emissions rules, 17 states followed. That changed emissions requirements for about a third of the country. It wasn’t worthwhile for automakers to make one set of engines for a third of the country and another for the other two-thirds. So, the rules quickly became de facto nationwide standards.
This new move, driven by the California Air Resources Board (CARB) regulators, is similarly designed to rein in air pollution. CARB says that tailpipe emissions are the leading contributor of carbon dioxide to California’s air pollution problem. The rule change could cut greenhouse gas emissions in the state in half by 2040.
Three states have since made the same move.
That sounds huge in a country with more than 275,000,000 registered cars, almost all of them gas-powered. It isn’t.
It Requires What Is Already Happening
Why? Because the world’s automakers will have largely gone electric before California’s law requires.
General Motors, America’s largest automaker, promised last summer to offer a mostly-electric lineup by 2035.
Even Dodge, perhaps the brand most identified with the roar of a V8, has announced plans to retire its signature Charger and Challenger models at the end of the 2023 model year. The company showed off its first “electric muscle car” in July.
Volkswagen sells more cars globally than GM. The company expects “more than 50%” of its North American sales to be electric by 2030. VW says it will develop its last internal-combustion-powered car in 2026 – almost a decade ahead of California’s deadline.
Asia’s automakers were slow to get started in the EV race. But they’re too big to fail to take advantage of a worldwide shift in their industry.
Toyota, the world’s largest automaker by volume, unveiled 17 planned electric models at a press conference last December. Hyundai plans 17 of its own. It’s off to a strong start. A jury of experts recently named the Hyundai Ioniq 5 World Car of the Year.
Luxury Cars Are Going Electric Even Faster
In the luxury car market, change is coming even faster. Tesla became America’s best-selling luxury car brand last year. Other luxury automakers watched the electric automaker lap them and then raced to catch up.
Mercedes-Benz, earlier this year, promised to go all-electric in most markets by 2030. Volvo, too, has written a pledge to go all-electric by the decade’s end. Audi may beat them both. The company says it has already designed its last internal combustion engine. Last summer, its CEO told labor leaders that the company might stop releasing new gas-powered cars as early as 2026.
BMW hasn’t announced plans to build its last gas-powered car but expects more than half its sales to be electric before the decade’s end.
What do all of these goals have in common? They’re more aggressive than California’s headline-making requirement. Most automakers plan their big electrification pushes for 2030.
The states are jumping in front of the parade after the marching has started and the route has been blocked off.
EV Growth Won’t Be Linear
According to the California energy commission, about 8% of new cars registered in the state in 2020 were electric, hydrogen fuel cell, or plug-in hybrid vehicles. Through the first half of this year, the figure is over 16%.
The state’s new gas car ban phases in, requiring 35% of new cars to be emissions-free by 2026. With adoption doubling every two years, that target could be easy to hit.
What Doesn’t Change
Finally, let’s walk the headline back a bit.
The new rules don’t mean you can’t drive a gas-powered car in California, Massachusetts, New York, or Washington in 2035. They mean you can’t buy a brand new one in those states thirteen years from now.
You’ll still be able to buy and sell used gas-powered cars. You’ll still be able to bring in gas-powered vehicles from out of state. And California residents will still be able to buy gas-powered cars in other states and title them in California.
It will take decades for gas-powered cars to grow truly rare, even in states that ban them. The average vehicle on American roads is now more than 12 years old. And averages are made up of outliers – many will keep driving decades after their first sale.
Like Legislating Gravity
The bans don’t require anyone to replace a car before they plan to. They don’t require automakers to do anything they weren’t already doing. And the goals are so modest that the automotive industry may get there before the law requires it.
Are the bans even worth the time it takes to write them? Probably. It’s a helpful signal of what’s to come. But let’s not kid ourselves that these states are creating change. They merely recognize it.