ELECTRIC VEHICLSCalifornia Dreaming? Nope.

By Alvin Powell

Published 13 September 2022

Expert welcomes aggressive move toward electric vehicles, but sees one ‘huge mistake’ policymakers need to avoid and a surefire way to anger drivers.

Last month, California regulators passed rules banning the sale of new gas-powered cars by 2035, a move hailed as a significant victory in the fight against climate change. The Gazette spoke with Henry Lee, director of the Environmental and Natural Resources Program at the Harvard Kennedy School and an expert on electric vehicles, about the ruling. Lee said that California’s action is not without challenges, but that a shift in the nation’s largest auto market has the potential to pull much of the country along with it. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Alvin Powell: How important is this move in fighting climate change?
Henry Lee
: The ultimate goal is to decarbonize the transportation sector. That means passenger vehicles, freight vehicles; that means ships, airplanes. California’s rule is certainly a positive step, but what’s interesting is that more and more consumers are asking for electric cars. Demand outdistances supply right now.

Powell: And that’s with new vehicles coming on the market that you might not think of as electric, like Ford’s F150 Lightning, with a couple of hundred thousand pre-orders.
: An electric vehicle performs better than a gasoline vehicle, so it’s not hard to sell. The concerns have always been, first, range. The trip I take in July is 500 miles and I’m scared I’m going to run out of power halfway. Secondly: “Where am I going to charge my car?” There’s a lot of activity underway to resolve those two concerns, so I think we are making good progress.

California took a big risk [in the 1990s] when it pushed for a certain percentage of cars sold in the state to be net-zero emission vehicles. A lot of people said, “California is never going to get there; its policy is simply aspirational.” But they set up a series of interactions between the government, auto manufacturers, academics, and other interested parties to work on the technology. And they kept pushing and pushing.

Powell: Do you expect other states to follow California’s recent move and ban sales of gas-powered vehicles?
: I would think so. There is some pushback that the move to EVs is going too fast: maybe we should examine other technology like fuel cells or greater use of biofuels. But not all of these options get you to net zero, and we need to get to net zero faster than a lot of people expect.