How California's new zero-emission vehicle mandate differs from earlier regulations

And a look back at the forlorn General Motors EV1

Chevrolet Bolt EV. Photo credit General Motors.

With California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s executive order mandating all new cars and passenger trucks sold in the state be zero-emission vehicles by 2035, the Golden State is counting on electric and hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles to achieve parity with the cost and convenience of gas-powered autos for the average driver.

That’s different from California’s first ZEV mandate issued 30 years ago, which was designed to force the technology forward. Faced with smoggy skies and the promise of improved battery technology, the California Air Resources Board ordered 2% of each auto manufacturer’s new car sales in the state be zero-emission vehicles beginning in 1998.

At the 1990 Los Angeles Auto Show, General Motors debuted a two-seat electric concept car named Impact that was touted as having a range of 124 miles on a full charge and a 0-60 mph acceleration time of 8 seconds. But GM’s CEO at the time, Roger Smith, cautioned that consumer acceptance was yet to be proven.

General Motors, Toyota, Honda, Nissan, Chrysler and Ford each offered battery electric vehicles to comply with the 1998 mandate. At best, they were practical only as second vehicles with limited utility.

General Motors EV1. Photo credit Wikimedia Commons.

It soon became clear that the mandate was too far ahead of the technology. One by one, automakers withdrew their ZEVs from the market to the consternation of EV aficionados.

While that first push for electric vehicles may have seemed like a failure at the time, later analysis reveals some benefits. A paper published in November 2019 by Resources for the Future concludes:

“The ZEV program was designed to address this ‘chicken and egg problem’ by forcing innovation and scale in the alternative technologies. It is not an exaggeration to suggest that most of the increase in innovation and demand for vehicle batteries has been as a result of the California ZEV program, which other US states and several other countries have also joined.”


The need to transition to renewable fuels for transportation is more clear now than ever. Wildfires in California have so far consumed 4 million acres this year, twice as many as the previous record. UN Environment climate expert Niklas Hagelberg links the unprecedented inferno to human-caused climate change.

Death Valley experienced the highest temperature ever recorded on Earth this August while September was the planet’s hottest-ever. And as this newsletter is published, Hurricane Delta is forecast to slam into the Louisiana coast within hours, breaking a record for the most hurricanes or tropical storms to make landfall in the mainland U.S.

Climate change is making hurricanes stronger and more common.

With Gov. Newsom’s order, California is joining Germany, Denmark and the U.K. in requiring zero-emission vehicles by 2030 or 2035. Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo announced that all fossil-fueled cars will be prohibited in the city beginning in 2030.

While not as popular as electric vehicles, hydrogen-fueled cars such as the Honda Clarity, Toyota Mirai and Hyundai Nexo, available for lease now in California, also qualify as zero-emission vehicles.

“So this is a game changer economically, environmentally, from a public health perspective,” said Newsom, speaking with Kara Swisher on the Sway podcast. “And certainly 15 years is plenty of time to bring down the cost of these vehicles.”

Want to learn more about the history of California’s ZEV efforts?

Check out these published papers:

Watch David Attenborough’s “A Life on our Planet”

The eminent British filmmaker David Attenborough caps off his amazing 94-year life with a disturbing look at biodiversity loss and the climate crisis, yet ends this 83-minute documentary with hope for the future. It’s a brilliantly-plotted narrative, tracing a path from destruction to reconstruction, with a pause for reflection in between. I highly recommend it.

Thank you for reading.