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California’s new zero-emission vehicle rules face obstacles en route to carbon-neutral future

California’s transition over the next 15 years to a more climate friendly fleet of emission-free cars, trucks and SUVs stands to transform the nation’s leading automobile market and have broad implications for consumers, dealerships and the car maintenance industry.

The move, which will end the sale of all new gasoline-powered cars and trucks by 2035, was announced late last month by Gov. Gavin Newsom as part of the state’s bid to drastically cut back the emissions that fuel climate change. The executive order, Newsom said, will help fast-track California to reach its overarching target of carbon-neutrality by 2045.

“We can’t get there unless we accelerate our efforts in the transportation sector,” Newsom said during his Sept. 23 press conference in Sacramento. “We can’t continue down this path if we’re going achieve our audacious goals. And, as a consequence today, we are marking a new course.”

California already is the U.S. leader in electric vehicle purchases, with roughly 726,000 vehicles sold to date, representing about half of the nation’s market share. The mandate is expected to broaden that market, and ideally spur automakers to speed their delivery of more zero-emission models that are accessible to a wider range of consumers. Newsom said he hoped the move would encourage other states to follow suit.

But the mandate, lauded by climate advocates and EV enthusiasts, has already drawn criticism from the Trump administration, including Andrew Wheeler, head of the Environmental Protection Agency. In a letter to Newsom, Wheeler, a former coal industry lobbyist, questioned the legality and practicality of the order, and pointed to recent statewide energy shortages that he suggested may be exacerbated if the zero-emission vehicle policy takes hold.

“California’s record of rolling blackouts — unprecedented in size and scope — coupled with recent requests to neighboring states for power begs the question of how you expect to run an electric car fleet that will come with significant increases in electricity demand, when you can’t even keep the lights on today,” Wheeler wrote.

Environmental groups applauded the state’s ambitious plan, even if it was short on details. They called Newsom’s decision a step in the right direction, helping to realize cleaner air and water, and also improve public health by curbing California’s largest source of greenhouse gases, accounting for more than half of its annual emissions, Newsom said.

Some advocates say the governor’s directive, which he branded “the most significant effort of its kind anywhere in the world,” still doesn’t go far enough. Given modeling shows the world is already in the midst of a climate emergency, they suggest moving up the state’s 2035 timeline.

“We are very pleased that the governor took such bold action on transportation,” said Ellie Cohen, CEO of the Climate Center, a Santa Rosa-based group focused on climate change. “But there’s a lot more to do, and more needs to be done sooner. Our lives literally depend on it, and we need to beat it in fact, based on the science.”

Others, including some local government officials and auto repair shops, have quibbled over the lack of specifics for implementation, raising more questions than answers. The plan envisions shifting a large portion of the state’s economy away from its current dependence on fossil fuels for everything from jobs to maintaining California’s roads, they say, without considering or offering solutions.

“It’s inevitable gas-fired, fossil fuel vehicles will slowly be phased out,” said Supervisor David Rabbitt, who holds several appointed positions to oversee regional transportation. “I know the governor likes to make big picture pronouncements and have the details work out later. I think they go hand-in-hand. There’s a lot to be worked out.”

For one, Rabbitt said, a portion of the taxes motorists pay every time they fuel up goes toward upgrading roads and related public infrastructure. At 1,370 miles, Sonoma County’s road network is among the largest in the Bay Area and already receives insufficient state funds to fully maintain it. If an alternative and consistent source of money isn’t identified with the transition to vehicles that do not require taxable fuel, the roads will only get worse, Rabbitt said.

Motorists will still be allowed to own, drive and exchange traditional gasoline and diesel vehicles under the new state rules. They just won’t be able to purchase any new versions of those vehicles after 2035 in the state. Newsom’s order follows up on an Air Resources Board target established earlier this year that will phase out sale of all medium- and heavy-duty diesel vans, trucks and commercial hauling rigs by 2045.

The transition is likely to be a rough one for gas stations, mechanics and auto parts makers. Electric vehicles cost owners about half as much to maintain as gas-powered options, meaning less frequent trips to the repair shop, according to recent analysis by Consumer Reports.

Shaun Bryan, owner of Keith & Don’s Flying A service station in Santa Rosa, concedes the lower maintenance costs are a benefit to zero-emission models. He also noted it could spell deep losses for California’s auto repair industry, which accounted for more than 756,000 jobs last year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Bryan said hybrid and electric vehicles only make up about 10% of the shop’s clientele, he said. And it can be difficult for independent garages like his to capture a wider share of the EV and hybrid repair market.

That’s because automakers such as Tesla put independent mechanics at a significant disadvantage by releasing limited repair information, Bryan said, guaranteeing that more of that business is kept in-house. If that tight grip continues, Bryan estimates at least half of all repair shops will go out of business, regardless of the number of older, gas-powered cars and trucks that will remain out on the road. California counts about 36,000 licensed auto repair shops, according to the state’s Bureau of Automotive Repair.

“The Jiffy Lubes on the corners ― all are going to dry up. I guarantee it. There’s no way around it,” Bryan said. “I’m not against going away from gasoline, but I think they’re trying to shove it down our throats and need to slow down. This doesn’t make any sense, and it’s putting the cart before the horse.”

Car dealerships, aside from selling the new zero-emissions vehicles, could end up being the beneficiary of more parts and service work, said Todd Barnes, president of Platinum Chevrolet in Santa Rosa. As a General Motors franchisee, his mechanics are privy to the latest equipment and training for repairing electric models and it could bolster the service side of the business, Barnes said. Service and parts currently accounts for about half of the dealership’s total revenue, he said.

If past experience is any sign of the future sales, new automobile purchases also will rise as consumers seek out the latest technologies.

When Chevrolet produced both the Volt and Bolt electric vehicles, Barnes said the two models made up about half of his annual new sales volume, at about 1,000 automobiles. The Volt was discontinued last year so GM could invest in expanding its electric fleet and self-driving technology, and the Bolt represents about a quarter of those annual sales, he said. But as new models roll off the production line, there could be another sales spike.

“We’re pretty blessed in this area with the acceptance of electric vehicles that may not be so true nationwide,” Barnes said. “It’s hard to predict the future. Fifteen years seems like long time, and in a sense it’s really not. But 15 years ago, we didn’t even know what an iPhone was, and now can’t see ourselves going to work without it.”

Alan Soule of Sebastopol has long been an electric vehicle convert, having first hopped in a GM model EV1 in the late-1990s. After that, he bought Tesla’s first largescale produced electric car, the Roadster, in 2008. Today, the president of the North Bay’s chapter of the national Electric Auto Association gets around in a Tesla Model 3.

Alan Soule of Sebastopol charges his Tesla Roadster electric vehicle at home. The president of the North Bay Electric Automobile Association is a proponent of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s recent executive order eliminating all new gas-powered car and truck sales starting in 2035. (Kent Porter / Press Democrat) 2012
Alan Soule of Sebastopol charges his Tesla Roadster electric vehicle at home. The president of the North Bay Electric Automobile Association is a proponent of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s recent executive order eliminating all new gas-powered car and truck sales starting in 2035. (Kent Porter / Press Democrat) 2012

Soule, 70, acknowledged much will need to be sorted out in the governor’s plan before 2035 — from providing independent repair shops greater access to proprietary information to meet maintenance needs, to finding the dollars to fund the state’s road network. Upgrading California’s outdated electrical grid will be another hurdle.

However, Soule said electric vehicles purchases have continued on an upward trend, reaching nearly 658,000 in 2019, according to nonprofit Veloz, which tracks EV sales. Wider adoption among California motorists can only help advance battery technology and expansion of the charging infrastructure nationwide ― both crucial steps for to ensure more of the U.S. and world follow California’s lead.

“For me, the main reason to drive an electric vehicle is environmental. But I have to tell you, now the way these EVs are designed and built, they’re not only more fun, but also more efficient than a gas car,” Soule said. “There’s no question the climate issues are man-made and we need to deal with them, and need to deal with it on worldwide basis. … Yes, there’s going to be a transition, but it’s for the benefit of everyone. I think it’s well worth us doing it.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report. You can reach Staff Writer Kevin Fixler at 707-521-5336 or kevin.fixler@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @kfixler.

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