I spent a few days driving in California last week.
The California Air Resources Board has been right all these years in imposing clean-air standards that are stricter than those of the EPA and mandating that automakers sell electric and electrified vehicles in the state.
California is a geological and geographical treasure that must be protected, even if it adds cost and complexity to automakers’ product development budgets and causes refiners to create special and cleaner blends of gasoline and diesel fuel for the state. Gasoline prices there are still close to $3 a gallon in most places.
Spend a day driving through the Mojave Desert and motoring around San Diego and you can’t help but notice the breathtaking beauty of the mountains, the enormous variety of healthy looking trees and plants, and the general greenness of the environment.
Contrast that with smoggy Beijing, where the government has not done a good job of taking care of the air. In December, Beijing issued a rare red alert because of smog, advising schools to close and restricting vehicle use.
California still has a smog problem, especially around L.A., but where I was in San Diego, the air was clean, fresh and clear. Right now, EPA and California emissions standards are aligned, but there is no guarantee they will stay that way after 2025. Let’s hope they do.
In a related matter, I saw plenty of Tesla Model S sedans on California roads. It’s pretty amazing that out of nowhere, Tesla is where Cadillac and Lincoln need to be: cross-shopped -- and winning -- against the German luxury juggernaut of Mercedes-Benz, Audi and BMW.
I also stopped at a Tesla Supercharger station near the California-Nevada state line. It was a lonely place. And it underscores how expensive it will be to change the nation’s fueling infrastructure.
Tesla spends about $270,000 on each Supercharger station, according to a report from ARK Invest, a financial research firm. Tesla’s nationwide network now includes 602 stations with more than 3,500 plugs at a total cost of more than $100 million so far.
But that total outlay is tiny compared with what’s coming with hydrogen stations for fuel cell cars. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory estimates that each hydrogen station will have a price tag of $2.8 million. California has awarded $47 million in grants for 28 hydrogen stations.
Despite claims of success from some Detroit-based automakers, one thing (still) absent from California roads: significant numbers of Detroit 3 cars.
In three days of driving in and around San Diego, I saw two Ford Fusions and one Chevrolet Malibu and a smattering of Ford Focus, Ford Fiesta and Fiat 500 cars. Domestic brand trucks and SUVs seem to be faring a little better. And Detroit’s muscle cars are selling reasonably well in California; I spotted plenty of Dodge Challengers, Ford Mustangs and Chevrolet Camaros.
But Kia and Hyundai are cleaning up in California; I saw Hyundai Sonatas and Kia Optimas by the dozens every day. The Detroit 3 need a new game plan to get back on track in California. Detroit 3 cars are fully competitive with imports these days.
To close on a brighter note -- and one that will probably make Cadillac boss Johan de Nysschen happy -- on the way back to Las Vegas on Interstate 15 east of Barstow, I heard a loud buzzing noise coming from the right lane and quickly growing louder. I turned to look just in time to see a nearly new black Cadillac CTS coupe, equipped with trash-can-sized mufflers flash by in a blur.
I don’t know if Cadillac is breaking through in California, but someone who could have had an Audi or a BMW broke ranks.