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Did California just kill the gas-powered car?

California’s decision to ban the sales of combustion engine cars is the latest victory in the transition to electric vehicles

Electric cars are parked at a charging station in Sacramento, on April 13. (Rich Pedroncelli/AP)

Five years ago, having an electric vehicle was along the lines of bringing your own bags to the grocery store or eschewing plastic straws: Some people did it, but those who did were either passionate environmentalists (often driving the snub-nosed Nissan Leaf) or wealthy technophiles (often driving the Tesla Model S). EVs felt like a novelty or a purity test — they certainly didn’t feel like an inevitability.

But over the past few years, everything changed. There was the Super Bowl ad for EVs, featuring Will Ferrell smashing his fist through a globe and shouting, “We’re going to crush those lugers!” (Ferrell was referring to Norway, the country that sells more EVs per capita than any other country in the world.) There was the announcement by six automakers and 30 countries that they would phase out gasoline-powered car sales by 2040, and the call by President Biden to make 50 percent of new car sales emissions-free a decade sooner. There was the release of the GMC Hummer EV — a monstrous, electricity-guzzling house on wheels that many environmentalists abhorred — the Ford F-150 Lightning EV and even the Mustang Mach-E EV. Automakers, in short, took their most treasured brands — even brands that appeal to a swath of America that is decidedly not crunchy and environmentalist — and rolled out all-electric models.

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In short, the transition from gas-powered, internal combustion engine vehicles to electric vehicles no longer feels niche, or speculative. It feels inevitable.

And this week, another profound development: California, which already leads the nation with 18 percent of new cars sold electric, is expected to approve a regulation to ban the sales of new gas-only powered vehicles by 2035. In addition to EVs, only a limited number of plug-in hybrids will be allowed to be sold. This is a big deal: California’s car market is only slightly smaller than those of France, Italy and Britain — and while many countries have promised to phase out sales of gas cars by such-and-such date, few have concrete regulations like California. Sixteen states have traditionally followed California’s lead in setting its own independent fuel standards — they could soon follow.

On August 25, the California Air Resources Board laid out new rules first, which include phasing out the sale of new gasoline vehicles in the state by 2035. (Video: James Cornsilk, Alice Li/The Washington Post)

Going from 18 percent to nearly 100 percent EV sales in 13 years may seem almost impossible. But Corey Cantor, an electric vehicles associate at the research firm BloombergNEF, points out that, in 2019, 7 percent of new cars sold in California were EVs. In a few years, that number has more than doubled.

“When things move that quickly, it’s pretty surreal,” Cantor said.

Of course, roadblocks remain. Producing hundreds of thousands of electric cars will require supplies of critical minerals and a pace of factory manufacturing that doesn’t currently exist. (Case in point: Ford has a three-year backlog for the Ford F-150 Lightning, thanks to sky-high demand.) The Biden administration has invested $5 billion into a network of car chargers across the country, but a recent study of chargers in the San Francisco Bay area found that over a quarter weren’t functioning.

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For the moment, sales of EVs are mostly focused in higher-priced vehicles, rather than smaller, more affordable sedans, but automakers are trying to push the price point down. And in order for consumers to take advantage of the new $7,500 EV tax credit in the recently signed Inflation Reduction Act, more minerals and batteries will have to be produced within the United States. The combination of high upfront prices, the oft-mentioned “range anxiety” and unfamiliarity with EVs may cause some Americans to resist going electric for years to come.

Still, most EVs are now cheaper over the lifetime of the vehicle than comparable gas-powered cars. This year’s spiking gas prices drove many Americans — some of whom had never considered going electric before — to look into what it would be like to drive a car that pulls its energy from the grid.

“A couple of years ago, there was always a question about EVs — do people want them?” Cantor said. “Now that’s not even the question. It’s all about scale-up.”

More on climate change

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Inventive solutions: Some people have built off-the-grid homes from trash to stand up to a changing climate. As seas rise, others are exploring how to harness marine energy.

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