'It's the Right Time': Experts Weigh in on California's Ban on New Gas Cars

David Shultz

David Shultz reports on clean technology and electric vehicles, among other industries, for dot.LA. His writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Outside, Nautilus and many other publications.

LA Sunset and cars on road
Courtesy of Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

California air regulators have passed a ban on new gas-powered vehicle sales that will take effect in 2035.

Governor Gavin Newsom had outlined the plan earlier in the week, but the law is now official. The plan is ambitious—perhaps wildly so—but it continues the tradition of California forging bold new transportation policies that are eventually adopted nationally due to the state’s massive population and economic influence.


“California, for decades—going back to the 1960s—played a useful role in pushing clean technology, particularly with automobile,” says Marlon Boarnet, a professor of public policy and chair of the Urban Planning & Spatial Analysis Department at University of Southern California.

“A lot of what we think about catalytic converters, improved fuel economy, lower emitting engines, were innovated first by mandated regulations in California,” Boarnet says.

In addition to banning all new internal combustion engine vehicle sales by 2035, the law also mandates that 35% of new vehicles sales must be electric by 2026. That number will increase to 51% by 2028 and 68% in 2030.

While Boarnet acknowledges that the policy is extremely bold, he says the timing makes sense for the state. At present California leads the nation in new EV adoption. Currently, 16% of all new cars sales are battery electric, compared to about 4% to 5% nationally. California is also among the leaders in renewable electricity generation. In 2020, nearly 60% of the state’s energy came from renewables, which means a switch to EVs will actually mitigate climate damage.

“Due to this set of factors, the rapid increase in renewable energy, the now rapidly growing market share of electric vehicles, I would argue it's the right time,” says Boarnet.

But is it feasible? Right now, the EV market in America is in pretty ragged shape. Layoffs have affected huge swaths of the tech industry and nascent automakers have not been spared. Companies like Rivian have struggled to hit production targets due to persistent supply chain woes ignited by the pandemic. Many EV manufactures—even Tesla—have been forced to raise prices in the last several months to combat inflation.

But Eleftheria Kontou, a transportation and sustainability researcher at the University of Illinois, says that the policy might actually help to stabilize the market a bit by providing a clear roadmap for manufacturers.

“After COVID-19, there has been a shakeup, right? It’s hard to predict the exact date of the recovery, but having these targets now is important because it helps [manufacturers] prepare accordingly,” says Kontou.

It's also easy to forget that 2035 is still 13 years away. While it’s tempting to extrapolate the industry’s struggles over the last two years into its long term potential, growth in other green energy sectors suggests that would be a mistake.

Since 2009, the price of solar energy has declined by more than 70%. The United States has increased its solar capacity from .34 GW in 2008 to 97.2 GW today. Wind power is down to 2 cents per kilowatt hour.

“A policy like this is really useful in underpinning the long-term expectations,” says Boarnet. “The idea is to send a signal both to auto manufacturers and to potential customers that, long term, EVs are the future.”

There’s still tons of work to be done to ensure that this legislation can actually succeed. Huge questions remain about battery components like cobalt and lithium. Where will the country secure them from? How do we keep costs reasonable? Charging infrastructure also remains woefully scarce in some parts of the country. Even in California, chargers are frequently broken or working far below capacity. Grid stability and capacity will need to be improved (though not nearly to the degree that bad-faith comment section trolls would have you believe).

It’s going to be a massive lift for the state, but Boarnet and Kontou both say the policy is sound overall and will pave the way for other states to get on board.

“This is what California has done and has done successfully,” says Boarnet. “We are the state–basically since the '60s–that has pushed forward clean vehicle technology. I don't want to engage in too much hubris, but it's been pretty successful. This is what I would call a well-thought-through next step.”

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