California is taking a bold step toward transforming the automobile industry with its highly ambitious new rules mandating a steady increase in the sales of ultralow and zero-emission vehicles.
If all goes according to the California Air Resources Board's plans, sales of plug-in hybrid, battery electric and hydrogen fuel cell cars will rise from a tiny fraction of 1 percent today to 4 percent of total state sales in 2018, to 15.4 percent in 2025. From there, California will be set on a course that requires almost all cars sold in the state to be zero or near-zero emission vehicles by 2050.
Unlike earlier efforts by California to reduce auto pollution with catalytic converters and bans on leaded gasoline, the auto industry is working with state officials. That's in large part because General Motors and Chrysler agreed not to sue California over the regulations as a condition for getting federal bailout money.
Also, this time around, car manufacturers see a potential for selling improved electric and plug-in hybrid cars. There is likely to be a growing market for such vehicles as second or commute cars as gasoline prices rise.
However, there are some daunting challenges that must be dealt with if the air board's vision is to be realized. Alternative-fuel vehicles are going to have to have greater ranges of operation if they are to replace traditional gas- and diesel-powered vehicles and hybrids, which use gas and battery power.
Electric cars will have a limited market as long as they are unable to travel long distances without a battery recharge. That means a breakthrough in battery technology will be required beyond the improved batteries of today.
Even more challenging is providing the huge increase in electricity production that will be needed to keep millions of car batteries charged.
Electric cars use more energy than gas-powered cars because electricity must be produced, transferred and used to recharge batteries, which also take energy to make and recycle.
To produce all that extra energy in a nonpolluting manner, the only realistic source of electricity, at least for the next several decades, is nuclear power.
Currently, most of California's electricity is produced by natural gas. There could be increases in green electricity generation from hydro power, geothermal, solar and wind. But there is no practical way to increase energy production from these sources in a large enough capacity to satisfy all the demands that would be made by millions of electric-powered vehicles. Unfortunately, nuclear power is more unpopular than ever in the wake of the Fukushima Daiichi plant disaster in Japan, and there have been no new nuclear power plants in California for decades.
Despite the hurdles that need to be overcome to transition the auto industry from fossil fuels to electric and hydrogen fuel cells, progress can and should be made toward producing cleaner-powered cars.
But without huge new sources of clean electric energy and new battery technology, the air board's vision cannot become a reality.