California just started the clock on a future that a few years ago would have been unthinkable: dealerships full of nothing but zero-emissions cars.
On Wednesday, Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, ordered regulators to phase out the internal-combustion engine and ban the sale of all new gasoline-fueled cars after 2035. With that, California became the first state in America to impose such a prohibition and delivered the biggest jolt yet to automakers already under pressure to give up fossil fuels and deliver a new generation of electric vehicles.
While for now the industry depends on gasoline-powered SUVs and pickups for most of its profit, traditional automakers are investing billions of dollars in electrification and announcing new EV models — with start-ups such as Rivian Automotive and Lucid Motors Inc. right on their heels. California’s ban increases the stakes.
“There’s an arms race going on here,” said Mary Nichols, chair of the powerful California Air Resources Board, which regulates the emissions of everything from oil refineries to power plants to cars.
Newsom’s announcement adds to worldwide momentum this week in the fight against climate change, coming less than a day after China pledged to go carbon neutral by 2060 — a bold move from the world’s largest polluter that, while still 40 years out, caught environmentalists by surprise. California is joining more than a dozen countries, including the U.K., France and Canada, that are phasing out the internal-combustion engine, data from BloombergNEF, an energy-research organization, show. The U.K. is actually considering whether to push forward its ban to 2035.
What California wants would be a huge leap for the auto industry. Less than 8% of new vehicles registered in California through the first half of the year were electric ones. And in 2035, BNEF projects that about half of U.S. passenger vehicle sales will be battery and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles.
The target is "aggressive," but it has the potential to speed the pace of EV adoption among automakers, said Stephanie Brinley, a principal automotive analyst for IHS Markit.
"If it actually happens, it does create a reason and impetus to make change happen faster," Brinley said. If "you have the opportunity for volume there, and you're going to be able to sell the car, then you can put more money into investing and increasing your capacity faster."