Ban cars that run on gas? That's just crazy, California!

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Crazy talk.

I imagine that’s how a lot of people interpreted last week’s comments from the chair of California’s Air Resources Board about how the state is seriously considering a ban on sales of gas- and diesel-powered vehicles.

“I’ve gotten messages from the governor asking, ‘Why haven’t we done something already?’” Mary Nichols told Bloomberg News. “The governor has certainly indicated an interest in why China can do this and not California.”

For the record, China is planning to phase out sales of cars with internal-combustion engines sometime in the not-so-distant future. India has a goal of 2030, and France and the United Kingdom are shooting for 2040.

It’s not as if most of us actually need a gas-powered sports car, pickup truck or SUV. We like driving one, just as I really like driving my Jeep Wrangler. But driving it won’t be such a blast when all of the roads are flooded or destroyed by superstorms.

So, why can’t California do it, too? Assemblyman Phil Ting, D-San Francisco, certainly thinks we can. He vowed on Friday to introduce legislation next year that would ban sales of new cars with internal-combustion engines after 2040.

“California is used to being first,” he told my colleague Alexei Koseff. “But we’re trying to catch up to this.”

So why not?


Because 1 in 5 residents of California currently live in poverty, the highest rate of any state in the country thanks to the astronomical cost of housing, and most electric cars aren’t exactly cheap to buy or to get repaired.

Because this state is massive, people have to drive a long way and electric cars only get a few hundred miles to the charge. Besides, our Legislature has so far declined to require that electricity be generated from non-carbon sources, which kind of undermines half the reason for owning a zero-emission, electric vehicle in the first place.

And because most of California is rural, whether it’s farmland or riverbeds or mountains or rugged coastline. And having a powerful four-wheel drive vehicle can really come in handy.

Also because zero-emission vehicles – except for Teslas – aren’t sexy, and we care about what’s sexy in this state. How else to explain that eco-woke Californians have only purchased about 300,000 zero-emission vehicles, accounting for a mere sliver of the 25 million-plus passenger vehicles on the road?

And because… Well, if I’m honest, those are all pretty ridiculous reasons not to pursue a ban on traditional cars.

In truth, what Nichols dared to suggest, what Gov. Jerry Brown has dared to demand and what Ting will dare to put into legislation isn’t crazy at all. It’s a perfectly sane public policy idea that will surely happen in California at some point in the near future. It has to if we care at all about the future of the planet.

It’s not as if most of us actually need a gas-powered sports car, pickup truck or SUV. We like driving one, just as I really like driving my Jeep Wrangler. (Yeah, I’m one of those people.) But, like many Californians, I’m also keenly aware that driving it won’t be such a blast when all of the roads are flooded or destroyed by superstorms.

Carbon emissions from cars and trucks account for more than a third of all greenhouse gases in our state, which is why regulators are so focused on getting more people to opt for one of the more than 20 models of electric cars currently on the market.

The goal is to put 1.5 million electric cars and plug-in hybrids on the road by 2025, and have them account for at least 15 percent of all new sales. So far, it has been a slog.

Which brings me to what actually does make Nichols’ statement come across as crazy talk. It’s the seemingly flippant, tone-deaf attitude behind it.

Sure, we’ll just pass a bill and “phase out” like 99 percent of the vehicles on the state’s roads. No problem. New cars. Maybe motorcycles and semi-trucks next.

In doing so, gasoline and diesel fuel will almost certainly become scarce. Not to mention auto parts. So forget about driving that classic car you’ve spent so many years restoring or that tricked-out truck that you love to take off-roading on the Rubicon Trail in the Sierra. Soon, you’ll probably have to pay an extra pollution tax just to register it.

Everyone will be fine with that. Sure. They’ll go along with it.

No, everyone won’t.

The methods California regulators and legislators use to force residents to kick the fossil-fuel-driving habit will make all the difference in the world. And the how has everything to do with the when.

At worst, banning the sales of gas-powered cars too soon risks exacerbating our already dystopian economy. Worried about poor people getting even poorer? Worried about pushing more people to move to other, cheaper states? Just wait until owning a Tesla is a requirement.

The best-case scenario would be if the wildest fantasies of Uber and Lyft actually came true, and the roads were suddenly filled with cheap, autonomous electric vehicles available at anyone’s call.

That’s certainly possible by 2040. Some researchers swear that 10 million self-driving vehicles will be on the road by 2020 – Trump administration, be damned.

In California, what’s far more likely is that autonomous electric vehicles will take off in coastal cities, such as San Francisco, where driving is primarily an on-pavement exercise and parking is already a headache. That will enable a palatable path to ban on gas-powered cars.

Legislators and regulators must remember that what makes sense for the Bay Area or Los Angeles might not make sense for Fresno or Redding – at least not right away. The reality is we need different solutions for different parts of the state.

But if California could pull off even a partial ban on cars with internal-combustion engines and a widespread adoption of autonomous electric vehicles, it would be epic. Remember, we buy more than 2 million vehicles every year in this state, more than France, Italy or Spain. The auto industry, notoriously reluctant to slow tout its clean-energy models, will have to pay attention and adjust their products.

And then, just imagine how our cities would change. With a fleet of autonomous electric vehicles, we won’t have to devote so much space and time to parking. How many more desperately needed housing projects would get built if developers didn’t have to worry about providing garage space? And how much more greenspace would our cities have?

And just think about it. Clean air in the Central Valley. In Los Angeles! How wonderful would that be?

But that’s just crazy talk, right?

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