Mary Nichols on Accelerating California's Electric Vehicle Market

Mary Nichols

As the federal administration debates ending electric vehicle subsidies, California is putting the pedal to the metal to increase adoption of zero-emission cars. At a recent Veloz forum sponsored by Southern California Edison, LADWP, and BMW, California Air Resources Board Chair Mary Nichols provided an overview of the state’s unprecedented progress on electric cars over the past decade. Nichols reported that almost one out of every ten cars sold in 2018’s third quarter was electric. Projecting rapid acceleration of new, more affordable electric models, Nichols is on Veloz’s public policy advisory board, supporting California’s drive toward zero-emissions. Veloz has launched the Electric For All public awareness campaign to highlight the benefits of going electric to consumers. Nichols also spoke about the need to reduce barriers for integrating electric cars and the built environment, help cities increase adoption, as well as harness the creativity of automakers in getting to the goal of a zero emission future. 

Here in California, I want you to feel an even bigger sense of commitment to the cause of zero-emission transportation. I also want to give you a better sense of what we together can be doing to help make this transition.

So, as I think you've all heard many times—and it gets sometimes a little bit discouraging—we are in a critical time for the environment. The political situation—not just at our federal government—does not seem to be up to the task to address the magnitude of the problem we are facing. Some are ignoring it and some are minimizing it, all in the effort to maintain the status quo.

However, the status quo is changing, and the world is changing very fast. The manifestations of climate change are coming at us harder and faster than predicted. The pace of our response at official government levels is not fast enough. Even in California, where we pride ourselves on being leaders and innovators, what we are doing is not enough. We know that, and it makes us anxious.

I get calls and e-mails from my boss, Jerry Brown, asking what we can do about many issues. He is in the process from transitioning from being the Governor of California for four terms and having an incredible career, into the next phase of his life. Working on climate change will play an integral role in his step. The governor had an amazing ability to communicate about the existential threat of our time, and to take actions to combat it.

But for those of us who are still around, we also have transitions to go through. I want to talk about the tools we have and what we have accomplished over the last eight years. The governor deserves a moment of recognition for how much has changed during his time in office.

When Jerry Brown came back into office in 2010, he became the oldest governor in California’s history. At the time, many people were still of the belief that implementing AB 32—signed by Governor Schwarzenegger—and achieving carbon reduction goals looked impossible. If not impossible, it was still going to be really hard. In less time than it took to get to 2020, everything changed.

In 2010, clean energy technologies were expected to be more expensive than conventional technologies for decades to come. Everyone was saying that, not just forces against climate action. Even agencies were saying it was going to be decades before the two lines of costs came together between renewables and conventional generation technologies.

In 2010, there were a few Tesla Roadsters and Nissan LEAFs on the road. Chevy was about to launch the Volt, the first mass-market attempt by a U.S. automaker into plug-in hybrids. The electric vehicle market was just beginning.

In this short period, we have strengthened our clean energy goals three times over, from 20 percent renewables to 33 percent renewables, and then to 50 percent, and finally thanks to the legislature, our goal is 100 percent. Every time that we ratcheted those numbers up, there was a moment when people looked at each other and said, “Can we do this?” And they all said that we could, and we must do it because the science continues to come in stronger and stronger that we need to move faster toward decarbonization. Otherwise, we will not be able to pass on the world we want to our children and grandchildren.

Six and a half years ago, President Obama’s Department of Energy announced the SunShot Initiative to decrease the cost of solar energy to competitive levels. Last year, the Trump administration’s Department of Energy announced that the goals had been achieved—three years early. Renewables and clean power has gone from far more costly investments to being less expensive than fossil fuels.

The electric vehicle market is on pace to explode at a level that rivals the explosion of the clean power market. Today, electric car batteries cost about half of what we all thought they would. In the third quarter of 2018, almost one in ten new cars that were sold in California was an electric car. That is a higher share than what is required in 2025 under CARB’s ZEV mandate. Now, I am beginning to get calls to make the mandate stronger.

California did end up meeting our greenhouse gas reduction goals four years ahead of time, and we grew the economy faster than expected. Amidst all of the fears of the new climate change report, and all of the hot air that comes to us from the eastern edge of the country, let’s not forget the truly amazing progress we have already made. In California, we’ve gone further in 8 years than anyone thought possible. Furthermore, regular people in various places did the work, each doing their part toward a common goal.  

We all agreed that this common goal was the right thing to do. It was not just about getting good press. As Josh’s [Josh Boone, executive director of Veloz] work and this ad campaign illustrates, we are doing this because we think we have a better idea. We thought that when the world saw this idea, they would embrace it. The point of today is to accelerate the adoption of electric cars. In addition to making electric cars more available and affordable for regular people, we also want to make the public aware that the cleaner technology is the better technology.

Electric cars are the newest example. But there was a time when people thought gasoline was the hottest, newest thing—and it was. As a result of our regulations in effect, gasoline technology continues to innovate. There is innovation happening within the incumbent industries. They are doing everything in their power to meet the current regulations with better, new technology. The internal combustion engine cars and trucks has twice-over reduced its emissions by 99 percent. They are close to getting there again, which was almost inconceivable. With better materials, manufacturing techniques, and design ideas, even the automakers who are doing nothing about electrification are reducing emissions through improving fuel economy.

The electric cars have a jump on them. They are faster, quieter, safer, and more convenient. They require no maintenance, which is a problem from the perspective of dealers who make their money on maintenance. The elimination of most maintenance costs is one of the things that we should be touting to consumers. If having to occasionally remember to spray Windex to clean your car windows is your biggest problem—because you are not going to a gas station—that is not such a bad problem to have.

California is not what made it happen. Our demands and requirements helped to establish a sense of necessity and reality that the market was going to exist, but it was the engineers and the industry that made it happen. They did a great job, and continue to do a great job, of developing vehicles that are attractive and make people want to buy them once they have the opportunity to drive them.

This is all happening at a time where the auto industry itself is in a perilous condition, primarily because of their own problems. So many automakers did not foresee what was going to happen to the global market, and failed to get there fast enough. The folks who did not see the electric future that we saw are going through some wrenching changes.

It is difficult to see the reaction of the part of areas that are going to see these changes. The losses of tens of thousands of jobs right before Christmas-time might have been imminent, but it does not take away the reality.

The reaction on the part of the administration in Washington is to threaten to take away the subsidies for electric cars. That is because electric cars are where consumers are going now. The electric car market is going to be punished, if the Tweeter-in-Chief gets his way.

It is a crazy situation that we find ourselves in, and as Californians it is our responsibility to continue to move ahead. We cannot get away from what we know: the future of the global and domestic market is electric. Let’s not pace it out and do it gradually. We need to do it as quickly as possible. We can do this by everyone playing a role. State agencies can focus efforts on building with more electric vehicles in mind, such as doing housing with charging infrastructure. Our transportation agencies need to figure out how electric cars and public transportation can work together.

We have a goal in place to get 5 million zero-emission cars on the road by 2030, and 100 percent of the market being electric soon thereafter. Some could say it is a modest goal. But despite our natural human tendency to wait until we absolutely have to do something, we cannot postpone until the last minute. All of these things take time to implement. So we must overcome our timidity about the near-term market.

In the next administration, we need to double down on incentives and investments in our infrastructure. We need to provide long-term certainty about our commitment and willingness to back these types of investments. The hope is that organizations like Veloz flourish, and become an even more active center of activity. This activity will be beyond producing fun, interesting media, but also supporting the market in other ways by being a credible, non-governmental source of information about the marketplace. Veloz will be able to help private sector organizations learn, and move through the process.

Particularly, upping our efforts means working with cities. Building on the interest and desire of mayors, such as Mayor Eric Garcetti in Los Angeles, we need to inspire competition to be the best, quickest, most resilient city in the future. We need to help them overcome the obstacles they have regarding rules put in place many years ago, which are either no longer necessary or have unintended consequences when it comes to the transportation revolution.

Everything we are doing today needs to be taken up to the next level, including the Low Carbon Fuels Standard. We need to make the proceeds from that program more readily available and quickly accessible, so it can get to consumers faster and more efficiently.

For Veloz, we need to continue to expand our reach and bring new audiences in. There is no entity that can’t be part of this movement. Even if you own gasoline stations, there is a place in this movement for you. You can have electric charging at your station to make it easier.

In closing, it is my belief that we have the right hands at the wheel. Whether it is at our regulatory agencies, local government, or private sector, we have leaders working together toward a common vision.


A zero-emission car future is a large part of what our new governor has talked about during his campaign. He will have some new opportunities to integrate electric cars into his vision for what we can do to make our state more prosperous. It is the imperative of Veloz—and all of us—to volunteer ideas and inspiration to the make this needed transition.

"The electric vehicle market is on pace to explode at a level that rivals the explosion of the clean power market…We need organizations like Veloz to thrive as an objective, neutral source of information, and help drive consumers to the market." —Mary Nichols