California's "Compliance" Electric Cars Unseen in Most of U.S. but Impact Felt Everywhere

By Jacob Brown | June 19, 2012
If you live outside California, some of the state's laws may seem dumbfounding. Take the "compliance car" laws recently enacted. According to the law, by 2025, all automakers selling at least 20,000 cars per year in the Golden State will have to have 15 percent of their fleet made up by zero-emissions vehicles. Fifteen percent is a lot, so much that automakers are likely going to have to find a way to profitably sell electric cars in California or risk sanctions. Currently, the cheapest all-electric car sold in the U.S. is the Mitsubishi i-MiEV, starting at $29,975, including $850 for destination and handling but not including any tax rebates. But it's tiny, and its range is somewhat limited outside of a city-car application. Other electric cars sell for upwards of $40,000 in the U.S., and the next one, the 2013 Tesla Model S, is expected to fetch near $100,000 in top spec. It then seems as futile as it is is absurd for California to tell automakers that a huge portion of their sales have to be zero emissions.
"[California] can do it in spite of a precedent for automakers suing the state," says Ron Cogan, a former features editor for Motor Trend magazine and current editor of Green Car Journal. He witnessed the last time California tried such a risky mandate during the 1990s and says there was more good to come from it than what is popularly thought. Most fodder over the previous mandate comes by way of Who Killed the Electric Car? and the fallout it produced for General Motors after the automaker discontinued the EV1 electric car and destroyed most remaining examples. GM didn't believe it had the wherewithal to continue maintaining the EV1s and saw more of a liability in the high-cost, experimental coupes than was worth the risk. Toyota let a scant few of its first-generation RAV4 EVs find permanent owners despite the risks. Cogan says the EV1's development ultimately led to much of the technology now seen in the 2012 Chevrolet Volt. And while products from GM, Toyota, and Honda all petered out after the first electric car mandate, they all directly led to the development of other products like the Toyota Prius, Honda Insight, and other hybrid and electric cars seen since then. It's safe to say that beyond California or any of the 11 states that adhere to the California Air Resources Board (CARB) regulations, electric-car technology will not spread too quickly. Both Cogan and trends recorder AutoPacific say that electric vehicles will remain a small niche for some time to come, despite President Barack Obama over-optimistically saying he wanted 1 million electric cars on U.S. roads by 2015. In fact, much like the first mandate, it's likely a lawsuit loosening the laws will happen, and many electric cars seen in California likely won't go much beyond its borders. But as CARB and the CAFE laws strengthen, it appears inevitable we're headed down a more electrified road to meet future fuel economy standards. And at some point, the experimental technology developed for California will trickle into the rest of the U.S.