A car gets charged up at the electric car charging station outside the Virginia Museum of Transportation in Roanoke. Photo by Megan Schnabel.

California has banned the sale of gasoline-only vehicles by 2035. After that, all new cars, trucks and SUVs must be electric, with a carve-out for one-fifth of new vehicles to be hybrid gas/electric.

At least 17 states are tied to California’s emissions standards – including Virginia, according to Attorney General Jason Miyares, who’s not especially keen about that.

Virginia Republicans now want to uncouple Virginia law from the California standard. State Sen. Steve Newman, R-Bedford County, says he’s already working on potential legislation. This is understandable philosophically and politically. Philosophically, Republicans aren’t quite as concerned about carbon emissions as Democrats are and no doubt believe that Virginia’s laws should be made in Richmond, not Sacramento. Politically, no Republican will ever suffer from running against California.

Let’s assume that Virginia does cut its ties to the California rule. The question isn’t whether that will preserve gas guzzlers in Virginia but for how long.

Ford, General Motors, Mercedes-Benz, Volvo and Jaguar Land Rover all committed last year to halt sales of new gas and diesel vehicles in “leading markets” by 2035 – and all markets by 2040. Meanwhile, two dozen fleet operators – including Uber and LeasePlan – pledged to use only zero-emission vehicles in their fleets by 2030, “or earlier where markets allow.” If Uber means that, people driving gas-powered cars won’t be able to land ride-sharing gigs after that.

Even before that pledge, some of those companies planned even more ambitious conversions. General Motors has set a 2035 goal to phase out gas-powered cars, in any market, not just “leading” ones. Volvo said last year that it expects to go fully electric even earlier – by 2030. Ford said its European cars will be 100% electric by that same year. True, what’s being sold in Paris, France, may not be what’s sold in Paris, Virginia, but it certainly shows where the market is headed. Befitting its name, Jaguar is moving even faster; it says it will be fully electric by 2025.

Companies that weren’t part of that global pledge are still headed toward an electric future, just at a different pace – sometimes slower, but sometimes faster.

Stellantis – formerly Fiat Chrysler – announced in August that it will phase out gasoline versions of the so-called “muscle cars” such as the Dodge Challenger and Dodge Charger by the end of 2023. Those models will continue, but with electric versions.

Volkswagen says 2026 will be the last year it produces gas cars. Honda says it will stop producing gas-powered cars by 2040. Toyota, the most cautious of the major car companies, has set a goal of 2050 to phase out gas cars.

Some of these deadlines may slip, but the point seems clear: Gas-powered cars are going away. Virginia doesn’t have to adhere to California’s ban, but the free market – that most classically conservative of things – is going to enforce a ban no matter what Virginia does. Or, if you want to be picky about it, automakers are going to decide what kind of cars are available, whether car buyers want electric vehicles or not. Republicans may get the political thrill of bashing California, and the philosophical satisfaction of Virginia making its own decisions, but they won’t save the gas-powered car. They might be able to extend its life by a few years but the future is going to be electric, one way or another.

That doesn’t mean there won’t be any gas cars. There will still be used cars on the road for many years but if you want to buy a new gas-powered car, your choices in the future are going to be very limited – and eventually you probably won’t have a choice at all.

That’s not to say Virginia should or should not tie itself to California’s rules, but to show the economic reality against which this political debate is taking place. The auto marketplace is about to undergo a fundamental transformation. All this may seem fantastical now. While sales of electric vehicles are booming (up 42.7% in 2021 over 2020 nationwide), the percentage of electric vehicles on the road remains quite small. Even in California, which accounts for more EV sales than any other state, less than 2% of the vehicles on the road are electric, according to Axios. In Virginia, the figure is a scant 0.27%. Electric vehicles account for a bigger percentage of new car sales – 5.6%, according to Cox Automotive – but there are still lots of older models on the road.

If left to consumers, EV adoption might proceed fairly slowly. But as we’ve seen, it’s not going to be left to consumers. Automakers have already decided to go electric. They have not made this decision in a vacuum – they’re seeing things like California’s ban (which has been a long time coming). California is a big auto market – the biggest in the country – so if California bans gas cars, that rules out a lot of car sales unless automakers adapt. They’re adapting, no matter what their private thoughts might be about carbon emissions. Even the most pro-fossil fuel car executive wants to sell cars. In the end, automakers love profits more than they love the internal combustion engine.

There seem to be a lot of things that need to change for this gas-to-electric transition to take place: Charging stations will need to become as ubiquitous as gas stations are now, and that charging process is going to need to become a lot faster. The electric grid will need to be able to handle more electric vehicles. There’s some debate over this. The Washington Post reports that “plug-in cars are the future. The grid isn’t ready.” But Forbes says “electricity grids can handle electric vehicles easily.” If the Post casts some doubt on electric vehicles and Forbes says easy-peasy, don’t expect me to figure that one out. But I’m willing to bet on one thing: If all these automakers are betting so heavily on electric vehicles, there’s going to be a lot of incentive to figure out the details. But make no mistake, this change is coming: The Bluefield Daily Telegraph recently reported that even Tazewell County in coal country is now looking at where to put charging stations. “We have numerous residents with electric vehicles,” county supervisor Charles Stacy told the paper. Plus, tourists have them. In the most recent General Assembly session, even House Majority Leader Terry Kilgore, R-Scott County, asked for $15 million “to establish a grant program to expand Electric Vehicle infrastructure in rural and underserved localities in the Commonwealth.” He didn’t get it, but the point has been made.

I completely understand why Republicans don’t want Virginia to be beholden to California’s rules, but I have a harder time understanding the antipathy of certain Republicans (obviously not Kilgore) to electric vehicles. In a recent rally in Pennsylvania, former President Donald Trump lashed out at electric cars, citing a friend who he says begged “let’s get rid of this stuff.” This seems odd for multiple reasons. First, Republicans, more so than Democrats, like to talk up “innovation” in the marketplace. This is innovation in action. Second, it’s Republican-voting states, far more than Democratic-voting states, that are benefiting the most economically from this transition to electric vehicles. Look at all the states that are winning big factories to make EV batteries: Georgia, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, Tennessee and West Virginia. Six of those eight states voted Republican in 2020, and the other two didn’t vote Democratic by much. I’m tempted to joke that Democrats may be the ones buying electric cars but it’s Republicans who are getting the jobs to build them, but the first part of that formulation isn’t quite true: I’ve met only two people in Southwest Virginia with electric cars; both of them are Republicans. That’s hardly a scientific sample but the point is that economic reality is more complicated than political slogans.

If Trump really wants to rebuild America’s manufacturing base, he ought to be championing electric cars rather than mocking them because it’s clear that the growth of the electric vehicle industry (and the desire to “re-shore” the supply chain) is what’s driving a lot of the biggest economic development announcements in the country. (Virginia’s economic development chief, Jason El Koubi, recently cited electric vehicle manufacturing as one of seven things driving economic growth right now.) When Glenn Youngkin was running for governor last fall, he repeatedly talked about how Virginia was losing out to other Southern states on big employers; all the examples he cited involved plants connected to electric vehicles. 

Anyway, my point is that the debate over whether Virginia should be tied to California’s rules on gas-powered cars makes for a good philosophical debate and may even make for good politics, but it’s not going to change the basic facts of the marketplace. Someday even the races at Bristol and Martinsville will be electric, and when that day comes, fans will hoot and holler for their favorite driver just as they do now.  

Dwayne Yancey

Yancey is editor of Cardinal News. His opinions are his own. You can reach him at dwayne@cardinalnews.org.