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California wants more electric cars. The Trump administration doesn't. Automakers are in the hot seat

Evan Halper, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Automotive News

WASHINGTON -- An intensifying clash between California and Washington over getting cleaner, more fuel-efficient vehicles on the road has put auto companies in a bind as they contemplate what cars they should be rolling onto showroom floors.

The signals to automakers couldn't conflict more: California, with the nation's largest auto market, is stepping up pressure to stay on track with the state's ambitious climate goals. The Trump administration is moving to free the companies of such obligations and even has threatened to strip California of its power to impose existing requirements within its borders.

At stake: Gov. Jerry Brown's plan to get 5 million electric vehicles onto California's roads by 2030 as well as the kinds of cars that drivers nationwide will be able to buy over the next decade.

Carmakers are left to gamble on how aggressively to follow California's blueprint as the Trump administration tries to undermine it.

The dilemma is largely of the industry's own making: Car companies have lobbied Trump to ease up on fuel-economy standards, which currently call on them to sell cars by 2025 that average 54 miles per gallon.

But those same companies are keenly aware that ignoring the plans laid by California can be perilous.

 

They can't afford to manufacture different cars for different parts of the country, and California plans to keep the current ambitious fuel-economy goal and the electric-vehicle mandate that goes hand in hand with it. So unless the Trump administration can block the state from going its own way, relaxing federal rules won't help the automakers much.

"The signal the administration is sending to auto companies is: Do whatever you want," said Dan Becker, who runs the Safe Climate Campaign. "The world is looking to California to resist these rollbacks that will not just will impede the growth of electric vehicles, but also the growth of more fuel-efficient gasoline vehicles."

Market analysts agree, saying the one thing standing in the way of Brown's latest electric vehicles goal could be the Trump administration's plan to relax fuel-economy targets.

If the administration can force California to join the federal government in weakening standards, said Salim Morsy, an analyst at Bloomberg New Energy Finance, "there is no doubt that would slow down electrification. ... It would be a blow for the state, and whether it could reach that 5 million goal would become unclear."

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