In a move that could reshape the American automobile industry, California regulators Thursday are expected to approve sweeping new rules requiring that 15 percent of new cars sold in California by 2025 run on electricity, hydrogen or other systems producing little or no smog.
The regulations by the California Air Resources Board, dubbed the "advanced clean car rules," would start in 2018, ramping up each year and ultimately resulting in 1.4 million "zero emission" vehicles on California roads by 2025. Today there are only about 10,000 such vehicles in the state.
"This is a really large step. It's transformational," said Tom Cackette, an engineer and chief deputy director of the air board. "Ten years from nowthe market is going to look quite a bit different."
The rules are the latest example of California's influential role in reducing tailpipe pollution across the country. The Golden State was the first to ban leaded gasoline, require catalytic converters and limit vehicles' greenhouse emissions. But unlike with many previous regulations, the auto industry isn't fighting the latest groundbreaking California rules in court.
Apart from electric cars, the new proposal also affects vehicles that run on gasoline and diesel, requiring a 75 percent reduction in smog-forming emissions from new cars, SUVs, pickups and minivans. And they require a roughly 50 percent reduction in carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions by 2025. That
The air board estimates that those regulations will add $1,900 to the price of a new car by 2025 -- but will save $5,900 in gasoline costs over the life of the average vehicle.
Environmental groups and the auto industry both predict that the upshot of the 15 percent "zero emission" mandate will be that vehicles such as the battery-powered Nissan Leaf and the plug-in hybrid Chevy Volt will become as commonplace on freeways by the end of this decade as hybrid vehicles like the Toyota Prius are now. Both the Leaf and Volt went on sale last year.
"We believe it's a pretty reasonable target," said Simon Mui, a batteries scientist who works with the San Francisco-based Natural Resources Defense Council. "Every major automaker and numerous startups are offering some type of plug-in hybrid or pure-electric vehicle already -- or they will be in the next two or three years."
The auto industry has famously battled California over regulations to reduce smog from cars ever since Gov. Ronald Reagan created the air board in 1967 to address the state's then-choking smog problem. But as the vote looms now before the air board in Sacramento, the industry remains strangely muted. One big reason: Detroit is already making and selling electric cars, as well as working on a new generation of more fuel-efficient gasoline vehicles.
"In the summer of 2008, gasoline hit $4 a gallon. We couldn't keep our most fuel-efficient vehicles on dealers' lots," said Gloria Bergquist, a spokeswoman for the American Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers. "The general trend is for higher gas prices. It's rare to find someone who doesn't think that gas prices will go higher in the future."
Apart from the Leaf and Volt, new plug-in and electric-battery vehicles will appear in showrooms this year. They include an electric Honda Fit, the Tesla Model S sedan, an electric Toyota RAV-4 and a plug-in Toyota Prius, along with an electric Ford Focus. By next year, BMW, Fiat, Mercedes and Volkswagen say, they will have battery-run and plug-in electric vehicles for sale.
Another reason for the auto industry's more docile approach is politics.
As General Motors and Chrysler faced bankruptcy in 2009, President Obama, working with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and California's air board, struck a compromise to loan the car giants billions. They agreed as part of the arrangement not to file lawsuits blocking California's new rules -- and to embrace Obama's plan to raise average gas mileage for new vehicles to 35 miles per gallon by 2016, up from 27 mpg.
The industry also had lost several big lawsuits attempting to overturn California's first-in-the-nation rules requiring vehicles to reduce greenhouse emissions by 2016. Carmakers struck a bargain with California and Obama to work together to craft a uniform, nationwide set of rules through 2025 to further reduce greenhouse gases. That rule will raise the national fleet average to 54.5 miles per gallon for new cars by 2025.
"In the past few years we've really started working more with California," Bergquist said. "We've wanted a single national program."
Automakers are still nervous about whether consumers will buy electric vehicles en masse. They say more tax incentives and charging stations are needed.
Citing the need to reduce smog, global-warming emissions and U.S. dependence on foreign oil, California has tried in the past to push the industry to make electric cars. In the 1990s, the air board passed a rule requiring that 10 percent of new cars sold by 2003 be zero-emission, essentially electric. But when battery technology didn't develop fast enough, the air board retreated and rewrote the rules to allow carmakers to get credit for making hybrids, which run on gasoline and batteries. Since then, 2.7 million hybrids have been sold in the U.S.
The latest rules have some critics.
U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Vista, has launched an investigation into the new rules, arguing that by working closely with the Obama administration California has essentially been setting fuel economy standards, which federal law allows only states to do. But Mary Nichols, chief of the air board, has rebuffed those claims, noting that California is permitted to regulate greenhouse emissions under a 2007 U.S. Supreme Court case -- and that one result has been higher gas mileage.
A poll last July by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California found 84 percent of Californians favor rules requiring automakers to improve gas mileage. Ten other states, including Washington, Oregon, New York and most New England states, are considering copying California's proposed rules, which would mean 4 million electric or plug-in vehicles on the road by 2025.
"You only need to look at your cell phone -- the batteries today are a far cry from the batteries of 10 years ago," said Mui of the Natural Resources Defense Council. "They are smaller, they are cheaper, they are higher energy. These vehicles are already on the road. It is about scaling up now, rather than inventing something from scratch."
Paul Rogers covers resources and environmental issues. Contact him at 408-920-5045.