AGM, Ford and other utomakers were excited about electric cars (EVs), at the Detroit Auto Show in January 2018. They had plans to invest billions of dollars into zero-emission vehicles. Fiat Chrysler however, indicated that they would not be participating in the transition. “I don’t know of a [business] that is making money selling electric vehicles unless you are selling them at the very, very high end of the spectrum,” Sergio Marchionne, the company’s then-CEO, told attendees at a press conference, according to The Detroit News. Rather than plow money into a rapid electric transition, he said, Fiat Chrysler would remain “technology neutral.”
Marchionne died later that year, and the company—now renamed Stellantis—eventually came around on EVs, rolling out new electrification pledges and concept vehicles. But with California’s move this week to rapidly phase out sales of new gasoline cars in the coming years and ban them by 2035, the business’s prior foot-dragging may have cost them, especially when it comes to meeting near-term targets to sell at least 35% zero-emission vehicles in the state by 2026.
California is the largest auto market in the U.S., and more than a dozen other states tend to set their own emissions rules off California’s standard. Stellantis does not have much electric product, even though they made some big announcements. “It’s somewhat questionable whether they can hit these targets, especially in the short term,” says Jessica Caldwell, director of insights at Edmund’s. “They don’t have very much time.”
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That tough reality for companies like Stellantis is part of what makes California’s new rules so transformational. In order to avoid catastrophic climate changes, we urgently need to eliminate fossil fuels. Gasoline cars and light trucks are a big part of the problem, accounting for 17% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions—not to mention releasing other forms of air pollution that contribute to thousands of deaths. A 2020 University of Toronto study found that 90% of American cars will need to switch to electric by 2050 in order to achieve its emission pledges.
American politicians tried to for decades force auto companies to switch to the science-based model. Way back in the early 1990s, California attempted to make automakers develop and sell zero-emission vehicles, a mandate that resulted in the launch of the country’s first mass market electric car, GM’s EV-1. The effort was thwarted by the George W. Bush Administration and the auto industry.
The government relies mainly on gentler efforts to encourage the auto industry, such as consumer tax rebates that allow zero emission vehicles. This resulted in the auto industry being able to squeeze money from 100-year-old internal-combustion engine technology while slowly moving away from fossil fuels. Manufacturers only got serious about electric vehicles when it became apparent that new electric entrants like Tesla were going to take over the market if they didn’t get their act together.
Those economic realities—and perhaps a modicum of climate responsibility—may have been what ultimately prodded companies like GM and Ford into making strong plays for the electric vehicle market in the past few years. For those players that felt it was best to continue producing gas-guzzling vehicles and trucks there wasn’t much to stop them from using fossil fuel cars. A world-wide transition to electric vehicles was needed, and the U.S. would do it at any pace that the auto industry wanted.
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However, some believe this might still be true. California’s requirements—likely to sail through a required federal approval—generally fall in line with electrification timetables from companies like GM, which has previously pledged to sell only electric vehicles by 2035. Some environmental advocates say that the deadline isn’t soon enough. “We need to shift to EVs much sooner or watch our climate stability slip away,” says Scott Hochberg, an attorney at the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity.
But despite that perceived lack of ambition, California’s new mandate at least puts elected officials in a position of dictating the speed of that electric transition to the industry, rather than the other way around. The state’s gasoline vehicle ban adds a stick to the new economic carrots for EVs passed in the Biden Administration’s recent climate bill—in this case, an up to $20,000 fine for every car sold in violation of the state’s electrification targets. This means that there are rewards for those companies who took the climate crisis seriously and invested early in electric cars. However, it also has real consequences for Stellantis’ players that ignore the need to take action on emissions to make a little more money from their gas-powered trucks. And at this stage of the game, with humanity’s chances of keeping the planet’s temperature rise below 1.5°C slipping away, those consequences are long overdue.
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