Mary Nichols, 75
Chairman, California Air Resources Board
Location: Sacramento, Calif.
Education: B.A., Russian literature, Cornell University; J.D., Yale University
What drew you to the auto industry? Its extreme importance for Southern California and, of course, for the nation. But particularly as someone who has been involved in fighting air pollution my whole career, I recognized early on that trying to get a grip on the impact of transportation and to figure out how to make it cleaner was going to be the most important thing that I could do for pollution.
First job relative to automotive: I started work as a lawyer in Los Angeles in 1972. The first case I was involved with as a public interest lawyer involved the building of a new freeway — called the Century Freeway — which was built after many years but only after it had been modified considerably to include a mass-transit line down the center median of the freeway and also a program to replace housing that was taken out as a result of building the freeway. I was a newcomer in Los Angeles. I was new to smog, which I really wanted to try to do something about, and the first thing I was tackling involved a freeway, which is kind of the emblem of Southern California.
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Big break: We got an injunction eventually to stop the freeway. A judge — who was an activist judge by the name of Harry Pregerson — who didn’t just content himself with stopping the freeway but presided over a proceeding to try to see if the freeway could eventually go forward but be modified in a way that would make it more of an asset and less of a burden on the community. That case really indoctrinated me in the role of the federal courts, but it also gave me the conviction that we could use the law in a way that would benefit everybody. That led to getting more directly involved in cases involving fuels and automobile standards.
What is the major challenge you’ve faced in your career? Learning enough about the way in which technology and public policy interact with each other to try to figure out how to be effective in moving our whole society in a direction that’s more sustainable. It’s been a work of years to be fully on top of all these issues because they’re complicated, and they’re interconnected. But I feel like at this point in my life, we are really in a position where major breakthroughs are possible, and we see the industry moving in the direction of it being a totally different creature in many ways than it was when I first started.
What has been the most important change you’ve seen in the auto industry? An embracing of an idea about sustainability on the part of all the manufacturers and a recognition that they do play a role in the public process. They don’t just go off into their factories and build things that they hope the public will buy. It’s a much more interactive kind of role that they play in public life. That’s been true in recent years with respect to global warming, where companies have really embraced the idea that they have a role to play, that the problem is real and that they can help to solve it if they are given more direction and also more support for making the kinds of changes that are going to be needed.
What work achievement are you most proud of? We’ve learned how to negotiate and come together around certain visions, and I think the work that we’ve done on the zero-emission vehicles, which includes battery-electrics and fuel cell vehicles, is the thing that will probably have the most lasting impact.
Is there anything you wish you had done differently in your career? I have had a marvelous career, and I’ve really been blessed by the people I was able to work with over the years. I don’t think there’s anything I missed out on. There are some things I still have left to do that I want to do.
Tell us about your family. I have two children and four grandchildren. My daughter and her husband and kids live in Washington, D.C. My son and his wife and kids live in Los Angeles. I’m very blessed to have the Los Angeles part of my family all united under one roof and to be able to really be a part of each other’s lives. That’s been amazing during this period when people have been staying mostly at home and having very little social life.
What’s your favorite weekend activity? I really like to hike in the hills around Los Angeles, and I have a couple of friends that I especially enjoy hiking with.
— Audrey LaForest