That sound you heard on Wednesday was the roar of 1,000 engines sputtering with the knowledge that the end is nigh. That’s when California announced it would begin phasing in a ban on sales of new gas-powered cars in the state: By 2035, per terms first laid out in a 2020 executive order by Gov. Gavin Newsom, automakers will no longer be allowed to sell cars within state lines unless they’re powered by electric-charge batteries or hydrogen fuel cells (or are plug-in hybrids, in certain instances). Companies will also have to meet benchmarks along the way: By 2026, 35 percent of their sales must consist of zero-emission vehicles, and by 2030, 68 percent. The California Air Resources Board will enforce these standards, with the power to impose fines on carmakers that violate the rule, and to ensure the batteries used in their electric vehicles are long-lasting and recyclable.
It can be said with no hyperbole that this is a game-changer. A former Environmental Protection Agency official told the New York Times that “California will now be the only government in the world that mandates zero-emission vehicles.” (Emphasis mine.) A clean-air expert called the rules a “turning point in cleaning up pollution.” Plus, as California goes, so does the nation: 16 other states already adhere to longtime California policy on reducing carbon emissions from transportation—still the most climate-damaging sector to date—and increasing the use of “clean” and low-emission cars. If they do follow these new rules, about one-third of the nationwide automobile market could be entirely gas-free in 13 years. With Californian cities also forbidding the construction of new gas stations and rolling out more public spaces free of cars, it’s clear the Golden State is leading the way in shaping an American future beyond petroleum-guzzling vehicles. Just in time for the Inflation Reduction Act’s new EV incentives, too.
Predictably, some are sour on this deal. Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said the regulation “will hurt all Americans” and claimed Californians are fleeing for the Lone Star State in droves. (To be fair, the nation’s marquee electric carmaker did.) Other conservatives stated that the EV mandate will fuel more blackouts, increase trade dependence on China (because of the supply chain for battery materials), and hurt middle- and lower-class drivers financially due to electric cars’ higher prices. The oil and gas industry, meanwhile, is practically crying and shaking and throwing up, and the CEO of the Alliance for Automotive Innovation doesn’t think carmakers can meet these goals on time.
These concerns would be a bit more reasonable if the U.S. electric car situation were still the same as it was in, say, 2005. But things have changed significantly for both the domestic-EV and combustion-engine market over the past decade, making the new California rules less a threatening deadline than a reasonable, workable, legally binding guidepost.
For one, it’s already the case that 16 percent of new cars sold in California so far this year were zero-emission vehicles. That’s already a rapid shift from EV sales in 2019, which only made up 7.4 percent of the state’s auto market at the time. According to the Alliance for Automotive Innovation’s own reports, sales of EVs in every single state increased by some amount in 2021, with significant above-average jumps in states like Oregon, Nevada, Colorado, and even Oklahoma. And states like these were already on track to enact similar bans to California’s in the coming years. Washington State will hear public comments on its own such proposal next month, which intends to ban sales of cars with internal combustion engine cars by 2030. New York’s state government is required to release a plan for a 2035 gas-car ban by next year. New Mexico is already on board, and Massachusetts recently signed legislation phasing out gas-fueled cars by 2035.
It’s also the case that California’s ban doesn’t remove gasoline-fueled cars from the streets altogether, but merely ensures new gas-based engines will be gradually displaced by the zero-emission-vehicle revolution; this will provide fewer options for gas guzzlers to pollute the skies for however long they may last. (For this reason, some environmentalists think the rule doesn’t go far enough in curbing emissions.) If you think car companies are unhappy about that, think again: Most of the world’s biggest automakers, from Ford to Bentley to GM to Volvo, were already working to phase out their gas-fueled stock by 2025 or 2030 or 2040. Consumer demand for EVs has never been higher, but automakers are getting boosts from federal and state dollars—for transitioning car assembly lines to EV factories, for battery-manufacturing plants, and for durable and widespread charging infrastructure, whose current lack of convenient availability has proved to be the biggest roadblock to widespread electrification. Already, new battery technology is increasing average EV range and life span, while offering cheaper power options for cars. Newly onshored manufacturing will help to avoid disruptions of foreign supply chains from EV-heavy nations like China, also helping to bring down product costs. Speaking of which, curious middle-class buyers will soon be getting all sorts of tax credits to get these shiny hot wheels for themselves.
Really, the most radical thing about California’s gas-engine ban may really be that it’s sharpening a stick, forcing some of the planet’s biggest polluters away from your local dealership. For those worried that U.S. climate legislation is mostly incentives, they can find reassurance that state disincentives for non-electric transport are gradually coming into place. It’s transformative, certainly, but hardly radical. At most, it’s one more nudge in the direction we were already speeding toward. The future will be electric because the present already is.
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.