Nichols, who retired as California's top environmental official last December after leading the clean air agency since 2007, is now co-chair of the Commission on the Future of Mobility along with Ford Motor Co. CEO Jim Farley. The commission — a group of industry, tech and policy leaders — also is trying to grapple with EV-related questions as it works to inform policy that prioritizes people and the environment on a global scale.
Nichols spoke with Staff Reporter Audrey LaForest about the future of EVs and how a shift in attitude has bolstered their staying power across federal and state governments. Here are edited excepts.
Q: What do you think about the path toward increasing EV adoption in the U.S.?
A: What we have is such a shift in attitude, in the way we're even talking about the future of EVs. I know that not everybody is quite there yet, but if you just looked at the statements coming out of the industry — from the OEMs, government agencies, regulatory agencies — you see everywhere the assumption, almost an inevitability, that zero-emission vehicles are going to be taking over. What size and shape they'll be, what the patterns of ownership will be, how they'll be used — all of those are still very interesting and important questions.
How have conversations about EVs and climate change evolved under the Biden administration?
If you look at the package of legislation that's being considered right now — the reconciliation bill, the whole approach to economic recovery — EVs and easing the transition away from the internal combustion engine and gasoline is front and center everywhere at the federal level. I wouldn't say that the oil and gas industry is 100 percent behind this proposal, but there's nothing like the resistance we were seeing just a couple of years ago.
Do you think automakers are serious about addressing climate change?
Every corporation that works at the global level is aware of and recognizes the need for a response to the immediate emergency of climate change, so I don't question the fact that they acknowledge climate change is a real factor and are making plans to address it within their own industry. They see that policymakers in Europe and China and elsewhere are insisting on changes in the fuels in the vehicles, and so they want to be the architects of their own fate as much as possible and not just responding or reacting to pressure from regulators. But it's also important to say that the move to EVs is not just because the companies want to do something useful to try to stave off the worst effects of climate change. They recognize that EVs have advantages beyond the environmental advantages, and they are now investing enormous sums of money trying to be in a position to compete very successfully in the marketplace.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom issued an order last year calling for 100 percent of in-state sales of new passenger cars and trucks to be zero emission by 2035. If California elects a new governor or the mandate gets undone by some other means, what then?
I'm happy to report that the governor signed legislation Sept. 23 that takes his executive order and turns it into law, with the backing of the California Legislature, except that it means that it accelerated the date to model year 2031 for autonomous vehicles. So this is not something that can be undone lightly. Even if Gov. Newsom doesn't have a second term, I don't think that it affects the underlying commitment that's now out there for electrification of the passenger fleet in California. It's important that people realize that this is not just some Democratic initiative, but that it really is likely to have longer staying power.
President Joe Biden's nonbinding target for ZEVs to make up half of all new vehicles sold in 2030 isn't a federal mandate. What happens if there's a shift in Congress or change in administration?
The main bulwark of defense against a flipping based on a new sheriff in town is that the industry itself doesn't work on a very short-term timeline. The investment decisions behind the vehicles that are being offered today were made five years ago and, in some cases, much more than that. The work on the platform for EVs is so integrated into the planning and development and design work that even if Congress was taken over by oil-producing states that wanted to roll back this trend, I think they'd have a hard time doing it. They could probably slow things down, but I don't think the movement can be stopped.
Does that put pressure on the federal government to consider a ZEV mandate?
Both the industry and the environmental community are agreed that they would prefer to have a national goal, national mandate. How you build the support for that, though, tends to be state-by-state action, which then translates into Congress deciding that they have to take action.
What is the biggest challenge that remains?
We still don't have a national defense strategy for seeing enough charging all over the country so that you could very rapidly envision a complete changeover from gas to electric in just a very short period of time. There needs to be an even greater commitment to seeing not just government subsidize [infrastructure] but also local governments, streamlining permitting, and businesses that have land — whether they're developing housing or commercial development — integrating charging into all of their plans. A really comprehensive strategy for fueling EVs is a next big step that will certainly make a difference.
Is there enough time, energy and investment in place to achieve this transformation?
We're in the process of inventing all of this in response to the climate crisis, and it is a crisis. There's a growing recognition that transportation, which historically has moved pretty slowly, is going to have to move faster. These questions are going to have to be addressed by multiple players and every level of government. From my perspective, there's a growing recognition of that and eagerness to take those questions on. It's something that requires a new infusion of talent and ideas and technologies, and those things all exist. We have access to all those kinds of things in our country, so I think it's an exciting time.