Calif. Rule Tries To Jumpstart Electric Car Market

fromKQED

California officials have approved a rule mandating that, by 2025, 15 percent of new cars and trucks sold be powered by batteries, hydrogen fuel cells or other technology that produces little or no air pollution. California has tried this before and it didn't work.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block. We end this hour with two approaches to solving one intractable problem: vehicle emissions and how to cut them. In a moment, we'll hear about new efforts to rally around an old technology, but first, the state of California is trying to jump-start the market for clean cars, like the new electric models that run on batteries.

CORNISH: The state has a 40-year legacy of passing tough car regulations. Now, under rules passed Friday, 15 percent of new cars and trucks sold in the state by 2025 must produce little or no air pollution. Lauren Sommer from member station KQED has that story.

LAUREN SOMMER, BYLINE: More and more, you overhear certain comments at Nissan car dealerships in California now that the all-electric Leaf is on display.

RENEE TRESTA: Well, number one, its price. And number two, it's kind of new.

SOMMER: Renee(ph) and Shannon Tresta(ph) are car shopping in the Bay Area. They've decided against the light-blue Leaf charging nearby and are leaning towards a gas-powered Altima.

SHANNON TRESTA: At this time, there's not a lot of charging stations, so we would never know where we would be able to charge it, if we could charge it somewhere.

TRESTA: Right.

SOMMER: It's this conversation that a California state agency wants to change.

TOM CACKETTE: We have been at the forefront of encouraging, and some people would say forcing new technologies.

SOMMER: Tom Cackette is with the California Air Resources Board. That's the agency responsible for meeting a dramatic climate change goal, and transportation accounts for 40 percent of the state's greenhouse gas emissions. So they're requiring automakers to cut those emissions from all new vehicles in half by 2025. On top of that, they're telling automakers that by that date, they'll have to sell almost a million and a half vehicles that run on electricity or hydrogen fuel cells, the kind that produce zero emissions. The thing is California tried this before, and it didn't work.

CACKETTE: I guess I would call it a little too visionary perhaps.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SOMMER: In 1990, the Air Resources Board mandated 10 percent of new car sales be zero emission by 2003.

CACKETTE: Obviously, that didn't happen. You know, the price of gas was cheap in those times. The price of the technologies were high.

SOMMER: Now, he insists the technology has come of age. Automakers have already announced more than a dozen new models of all-electric or plug-in hybrid cars, and there's another big difference this time around.

CACKETTE: The car manufacturers were adamantly opposed to the concept of government telling them they needed to build a new type of technology. That's changed.

GLORIA BERGQUIST: You are seeing more agreement between automakers and California and the federal government.

SOMMER: Gloria Bergquist is a spokeswoman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which represents a dozen car companies.

BERGQUIST: Automakers have invested billions of dollars in these technologies, and so in some ways, we have similar interests. Our interest in recouping our investment is now, you know, aligned with the societal imperative to get more of these vehicles on the road.

SOMMER: Bergquist says meeting the sales mandate isn't ultimately up to the carmakers. It's up to customers. It's estimated that California's new rules will raise all new car sticker prices by $1,900 on average, though the projected savings on fuel costs will offset that.

BERGQUIST: There's still concern about what the consumer acceptance of these technologies is going to be, and that can make a mandate very scary.

SOMMER: California regulators say they're doing all they can to encourage customers to buy the vehicles, including funding a popular rebate program that gives buyers up to $2,500. They're also trying to ease customers' charging anxiety by working with companies to build an electric car charging infrastructure in the state. With those incentives in place, government officials are confident they can drive consumer demand. For NPR News, I'm Lauren Sommer in San Francisco.

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