Zero emission vehicle program needs a tuneup

Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla Motors Inc., left, discusses the company’s new factory last month in Sparks, Nevada.
Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla Motors Inc., left, discusses the company’s new factory last month in Sparks, Nevada. Associated Press

California has been a leader in offering zero-emission vehicles for more than a decade. But without immediate changes to its ZEV program, the state could fall far short of its goals, leaving consumers with fewer clean vehicle options and threatening progress in improving air quality and public health.

The state’s rules have been driving innovation in the United States and around the world. In 2011, it set a goal to increase sales of emission-free cars to 15 percent of all new cars by 2025, or about 1.5 million ZEVs.

This effort has been successful with more than 30 models of plug-in vehicles on the road today. But technology has advanced so quickly that the rules and credit system for determining whether automakers are complying are not keeping pace.

According to a Natural Resources Defense Council study, the rules would only ensure that 6 percent of California’s vehicles are emission-free by 2025, far shy of the 15 percent goal. If all the pre-orders of Tesla’s Model 3 materialize, that could fulfill all of the current credit requirements so that no other automaker would need to place a single ZEV on the road.

Fortunately, there’s a golden opportunity to restore the original intent of the ZEV program when the California Air Resources Board conducts its midterm review of greenhouse gas standards this year.

We want all automakers working on new clean technologies and competing for clean-car shoppers across all price ranges and vehicle classes, including more family friendly options. We want to spur innovation and expansion of charging stations. We need to ensure that all communities benefit. And we want the full range of clean air and health benefits.

More than 80 percent of Californians live in areas with poor air quality, and tailpipe emissions are a major contributor to air pollution. Each year, according to the American Lung Association in California, vehicle-related air pollution costs hundreds of lives, thousands of doctor visits and tens of thousands of lost work and school days.

Consumer demand is not a problem.

In California, ZEV registrations increased by 244 percent between 2012 and 2014, according to the nonprofit group Next 10. Nearly 55 percent of California drivers are likely to consider an electric vehicle for their next purchase or lease, according to a recent survey by Consumers Union and the Union of Concerned Scientists.

We’re not asking automakers to go it alone.

Federal tax credits and state-incentive programs help bring down the cost of an electric vehicle. Perks such as preferential parking and access to carpool lanes enhance consumer interest. We urge the Legislature and governor to release millions of dollars from California’s Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund, which normally supports ZEV incentives but is stuck in political gridlock.

A tuneup of the ZEV program means more choice for consumers and progress toward the clean air future we deserve.

David Tom Cooke is an associate professor of thoracic surgery at the University of California, Davis, Medical Center and a board member of the American Lung Association in California and can be contacted at Shannon Baker-Branstetter is energy policy counsel for Consumers Union, the advocacy arm of Consumer Reports and can be contacted at