The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion California’s plan to ban new gas-powered cars is misguided

Traffic backs up at the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge toll plaza on August 24. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

California is once again trying to use government mandates to force its residents to help fight climate change. The state’s latest installment in this long-running play, a new rule banning the sale of new gas-powered vehicles by 2035, is likely to be as much a failure as its previous efforts were.

The proposal is a classic exercise of hubris. The thinking goes like this: The state wants to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and many of those come from cars and trucks. Therefore, if it bans the sale of new cars that emit those gasses, the people will follow along without much complaint. Cars become electric, greenhouse gas emissions go down and the problem is solved.

The problem comes from that little variable the state’s bureaucrats overlook: the people. The vast majority of people buy cars and trucks to get from one place to another, not to serve some lofty climate goal. They also balance the costs of transportation against other goods, like housing and food. If transportation costs rise, they look for ways to cut them to maintain consumption elsewhere. That’s basic economics.

People buy gas-powered cars today in large part because they are cheaper than electric ones. Prices for electric vehicles are substantially higher than for equivalent gas-powered models. The average EV is about $10,000 more expensive upfront, a massive amount for the average household and an insuperable one for low-income households. Even the new, more restrictive $7,500 per vehicle tax credit doesn’t fully eliminate the upfront price disadvantage that discourages EV purchase. Fuel and maintenance costs are usually lower for electric vehicles than for gas-powered cars, but it still takes years for owners to recoup the heavy upfront price premium.

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Then there’s the battery life and depletion problem. Batteries of all types eventually lose their ability to store electricity, and vehicle batteries are no exception. The longer you own an EV, the more the battery will deplete and require frequent recharging. This happens more quickly in places with extreme heat or cold — which is to say, most places in the United States outside of California. That means an owner will either have to recharge their car more frequently, raising operating costs, or even replace their battery at substantial costs. Manufacturers typically warranty their battery for 10 years or 100,000 miles, but that’s little comfort for someone who expects to drive their vehicle beyond those points.

Then you get the problem of convenience. Gas-powered cars can run for hundreds of miles without needing refueling, and filling the tank takes only a few minutes. EVs are catching up on the ability to go long distances, but they can’t come close to matching the refueling advantage gas-powered cars have. Even with a Level 2 charger, which itself costs hundreds — or thousands — of dollars to purchase and install in one’s home, it takes hours to fully recharge a drained battery. That’s a matter of hard physical science, not economics, making EVs a problematic purchase for households that drive long distances frequently.

Getting around this by purchasing a plug-in hybrid, a combination electric- and gas-powered car that the new rule would permit, reduces the impact on climate change the rule-makers are trying to achieve. And the rule also includes a minimum electric range requirement — 50 miles — that new plug-in hybrids would have to meet to be sold in 2035. Almost no current models meet that Olympian standard.

Regulators surely expect their mandate to drive cost reductions and technology improvements that can mitigate over time these barriers to EV adoption. But the rule contains its own self-destructive clause by allowing the sale of used gas-powered vehicles. Used vehicles are already about 70 percent of all annual vehicles sales. Drivers who can’t afford new EVs will increasingly turn to the used market to get the gas-powered car they really want. That will in turn reduce the demand signals regulators hope to generate to force auto manufacturers to improve EV technology. It’s like they punched their own holes in a hose even as they plan to try to push more water through it.

California’s insistence on top-down mandates is all the more surprising given its own checkered experience with such measures. The state promulgated a Low Emission Vehicle mandate in 1990, intending to drive demand and technological change in gas-powered cars to lower conventional pollutant emissions. The rule flopped spectacularly as demand for the new cars remained low and manufacturers could not economically produce the desired technological improvements. The rule was watered down considerably, and an analysis by the Public Policy Institute of California found that most of the environmental improvements over time came from vehicle changes unrelated to the rule’s strictures.

This gap between hope and reality is endemic in climate change policy. People have minds of their own and balance climate goals against a host of other considerations. If achieving climate aspirations costs too much, most people will abandon them in favor of other, more personally important goals. That is a reality that can only be overcome by force, much as government can compel behavior during wartime by rationing and price controls. The fact that there’s no political will to impose those measures on recalcitrant Americans means that climate policies like California’s will inevitably fail to reach their goals.

California’s new electric car mandate is inspired by the best of intentions. But its ignorance of human nature and economics means it’s likely to be just another case of California dreamin’.