California Can Still Lead America And The World On Electric Vehicles


Yunshi Wang is a co-author on this article.

What is the future for electric vehicles? Are they destined to push out gasoline and diesel cars, or will they be niche players? How does California compare to China or Europe, in this transformation? Which technology will win, and where?

Fortunately, California can still lead the transportation electrification transition – despite Trump administration intransigence.

Electric vehicle sales slump in China and the U.S., but surge in Europe

Zero-emission vehicle sales slipped in both California and China during the first five months of 2020 because of COVID-19’s impact on the economy. If this slowdown continues, it will impede China’s goal of a 25% EV market share by 2025, and California’s plan for five million EVs on the road by 2030.  

Luckily, the reverse trend is underway in Europe, driven by stringent greenhouse gas regulations. Its five largest markets—Germany, France, the U.K., Italy, and Spain—collectively registered more EVs than China in the first quarter, helping Europe reach 7.5% of the new car market share. Regulations in Europe require that 2.5 million EVs must be sold between 2020 and 2021, so this trend will grow. And the big winner: 70% of the new car sales in Norway were EVs during the same quarter!

Unfortunately, the Trump administration is in full attack mode. It has cut fuel economy standards for new cars, which were helping the EV transition. And it is trying to revoke California’s right to set its own standards. This assault is part of the administration’s climate change denial and has made the U.S. an international pariah —and it will hinder our competitiveness.

Putting the brakes on EV deployment hurts U.S. competitiveness

Tough times call for vision, and for the auto world that means accelerating, not slowing, the transition to clean, quiet ZEVs. We need to make decisions that set the economy up for success. Former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger fairly asked whether we want “to be like the last horse and buggy salesman who was holding out as cars took over the roads?”

The fact is that, excluding Tesla

Model 3, none of the U.S. auto products staked a claim on the top ten global ZEV sales so far this year. If the Trump administration succeeds in shutting down California’s leadership in clean energy and vehicles, we will soon see an exodus of talent from the U.S. It will be a home-grown brain-drain, and a self-inflicted wound.

Yunshi remembers that, after 2009, he met with many top engineers at Chinese EV companies who were “refugees” from the Detroit Big Three: None would return to the U.S. after the Great Recession.

California’s policy stands in stark contrast to Washington. Our Air Resources Board has required growing fractions of EVs, and has a strong portfolio of other clean energy policies, helping Tesla emerge as the world’s predominant EV producer. Its Model 3 accounted for 16% of the global EV market in the first quarter of the year, more than the combined total of the next five models. The Model 3 even accounted for 20% of the electric car market in China, the largest and most competitive EV market in the world.

Isolationist policies from Washington, D.C. will undermine this leadership—and will undercut the courageous investments made by GM to electrify ever-more of its fleet.

California’s clean transportation leadership crosses borders

While the world is horrified by Trump’s work to dismantle environmental regulation, it is transfixed by the leadership here in the Golden State, the cradle of technology and policy innovations.

This state has picked up the mantle, and California has the mien of a nation: We have established air and climate partnerships with officials from China and the European Union; our agencies run workshops and training seminars for officials from other countries; we lead in many international negotiations; and we use policy and technology, side-by-side, to improve the environment.

But we can do even more on the world stage. California can set-up and coordinate intermediate (10-year) and long-term (30-year) visions across China, the U.S. (and within our own state), and the EU. Many European countries have pledged to ban the sales of internal combustion engine vehicles by or before 2050. Once unthinkable, Norway’s amazing EV sales have proven that such bans are achievable in a relatively short time. California has set its ambition of carbon neutral transportation by 2045, and is taking steps in that direction, including the zero-emission bus policy and Advanced Clean Truck program.

China is deliberating on its EV market share target for 2035, and will likely land between 50% and 60% of new sales. That ambition will require serious programs, starting today. Which policies will deliver the most? California, China, and the EU should support each other in policy and market strategy, so we all learn together.

Three ways California can go even further on clean transportation

A global EV acceleration helps everyone, and collaboration with our international partners can expand at three levels.

  1. First, Governor Newsom and his advisors can continue to engage in international events and highlight the state’s resolve to achieve our ZEV deployment goals.
  2. Second, visits and event participation in other countries by cabinet officials or senior state advisors can lead to policy consensus among our European and Chinese government partners.
  3. Third, at the working level, practitioners can learn from each other. The state now has a good menu of successful operations, which should be supported: The China-California-Netherlands ZEV Policy lab at UC Davis, the Coast-to-Coast eMobility between California and the Netherlands with a plan for China, and the International Council on Clean Transportation’s Secretariat of International ZEV Alliance.

In this battle for the future of U.S. transportation, let’s paraphrase Steve Jobs, another son of California: Why join a navy without a captain if you can be a pirate with a sunny vision?


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