If Trump wants to ‘Make Cars Great Again,’ he should trust California

Tesla Model 3 in the inventory lot at the Tesla factory in Fremont, Calif. on Thursday, July 26, 2018. MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Mason Trinca
Tesla Model 3 in the inventory lot at the Tesla factory in Fremont, Calif. on Thursday, July 26, 2018. MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Mason Trinca For The Washington Post

By now, Californians have gotten used to the constant political attacks from the federal government, led by a president who has made no secret of his desire to stick it to liberals.

But this latest effort to roll back Obama-era fuel efficiency standards on new vehicles — undermining our state’s most valuable tool for improving air quality and fighting climate change — can only be described as a special kind of stupid. Or as former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger tweeted, a “stupid, fake-conservative policy announcement that no one asked for.”

Last we checked, there wasn’t much demand for gas-guzzling cars that spew clouds of planet-warming, greenhouse gas. But on Thursday, the Trump administration still released a plan that would free automakers from having to aggressively ramp up the production of cleaner, more fuel-efficient vehicles.

Under regulations enacted in 2012, vehicles are required to get an average of 45 miles a gallon by 2022 and an average of 54 miles per gallon by 2025. Instead, Trump wants freeze fuel-efficiency standards at an average 35 miles a gallon in 2020.

For California, half of which is currently on fire after years of climate-change-related drought, such a shift would undermine every effort underway to stabilize the environment, and would surely increase rates of asthma and other breathing disorders in the Central Valley. Tailpipe emissions account for nearly 40 percent of the state’s air pollution.

Even worse, the Trump administration also wants revoke California’s waiver — granted under the 1970 Clean Air Act and now followed by 13 other states — to demand vehicles with stricter tailpipe emissions standards than the federal government’s.

Gov. Jerry Brown was right to declare Thursday that the state “will fight this stupidity in every conceivable way possible.” There is no other choice. But the good news is the state has plenty of leverage to negotiate a deal and should use it.

California, and the 13 other states that followed our lead, account for about a third of U.S. auto sales. Attorney General Xavier Becerra has threatened to sue, meaning the uncertainty of whether automakers will have to make cars for two different fuel standards could persist for years as the case is tied up in court.

Also working in California’s favor is that Trump’s plan — backed by the ridiculous assertion that cars that are more efficient are lighter and therefore more dangerous — runs counter to the huge investments being made by U.S. automakers.

Ford, for example, told investors that it is shifting away from internal combustion engines and toward electric and hybrid cars. General Motors plans to add 20 new battery electric and fuel cell vehicles to its global lineup by 2023. And there’s Tesla, of course.

California is home to more manufacturers of zero-emission and fuel-efficient cars than any other state, and nearly 15,000 Californians work at companies tied to that industry. But there are electric car plants in red states, too, including Indiana, Florida and Tennessee — which, again, runs counter to Trump’s plan to scrap California’s authority to require automakers sell a certain number of zero-emission cars in the state.

Change is coming whether Trump and his retrograde Republican followers like it or not. The best way to “Make Cars Great Again” is to get out of the way.