For California to be at the forefront of the fight against climate change, the state must confront the huge climate pollution source that’s zipping along roadways all around us: passenger cars and trucks.

Despite some important steps to clean up the automobile, the daily lives of many Californians still revolve around gas-powered cars, SUVs and pickup trucks — which together emit 30% of the state’s global warming pollution.   

To help avoid the fires, droughts, disease and other dangers that are increasingly scarring the globe as warming intensifies, California must rapidly shift its vehicle fleet to electric vehicles, which emit no tailpipe climate pollution, and clean up the remaining petroleum vehicles faster.

Join us in calling on Gov. Newsom to require 100% zero-emission vehicle sales by 2030 — and a minimum 7% annual decrease in greenhouse gas emissions from conventional vehicles in the meantime — while ensuring that low-income communities and those of color benefit equitably from the transition.

California must lead the way on clean vehicles and seize this opportunity to create good, family-supporting jobs as part of a just, green economic recovery.


History of Automakers Fighting Emissions Standards 

For the past 50 years, automakers have actively undermined climate science, fought stronger standards by repeatedly crying wolf, and broken promises not to sue in exchange for weaker regulations. This history illustrates why California must quickly adopt strong emissions standards and ZEV requirements rather than depend on unreliable promises and unenforceable side deals with these companies. 

Lies, Cheating, and Broken Promises: A History of Auto Companies Fighting Emissions Standards

1950s–1960s – To the frustration of Los Angeles policymakers, automakers attempt to stave off state and federal pollution rules while refusing to voluntarily reduce pollution from their vehicles.1

  • In response to increasing research on air pollution, public health, and car emissions, Ford tells a Los Angeles County supervisor that auto engine “exhaust gases” “dissipate in the atmosphere and do not present an air-pollution problem,” and that the “fine automotive powerplants which modern-day engineers design do not ‘smoke.’ ”2

    1960s – Scientists at General Motors Research Laboratories and Ford Motor Co. begin studying CO2 and global warming, publishing their findings, and warning that car emissions contribute to climate change.

    1970 – Congress passes the Clean Air Act and requires automakers to meet specific tailpipe standards by 1975, despite the automakers claiming that meeting the standards is impossible.

    • Ford’s Executive Vice President Lee Iacocca says the new standards “could prevent continued production of automobiles,” “lead to huge increases in the prices of cars,” and/or “do irreparable harm to the American economy.” 3

      1974–1975 – The Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) program is introduced and adopted as part of the Energy Policy and Conservation Act. Again automakers cry wolf:

      • Ford: “This proposal would require a Ford product line consisting of
        either all sub-Pinto-sized vehicles or some mix of vehicles ranging from a
        sub-sub-compact to perhaps a Maverick.”
      • Chrysler: “In effect, this bill would outlaw a number of engine lines
        and car models, including most full-size sedans and station wagons. It
        would restrict the industry to producing sub-compact-size cars — or even
        smaller ones.”
      • General Motors: “This legislation would have the effect of placing
        restrictions on the availability of five- and six-passenger cars — regardless of
        consumer needs or intended use of vehicles. It is not only an unjustified
        interference with individual freedom, but an extreme and unusual way for a
        free society to achieve its goals.”

      1989 – As climate change begins to emerge as an international and U.S. policy issue, Ford and General Motors back away from climate research. Rather than invest in researching clean technologies, they continue to orient their business model arounds gas-guzzling vehicles like SUVs and pickups and oppose stronger emissions standards.

      • Automakers also begin donating to disinformation campaigns and climate-denying think tanks and organizations like the Competitive Enterprise Institute, the American Enterprise Institute, and others. They continue these donations for decades.
      • Automakers also join the Global Climate Coalition, 4 formed in 1989 to oppose efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions — such as by opposing the Kyoto Protocol 5 — and misrepresent climate science. Other members included the National Association of Manufacturers, American Petroleum Institute, the Motor Vehicle Manufacturers Association, Exxon, Chevron, and Shell.

      2002 – Gloria Bergquist, spokeswoman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, speaks out in opposition to bills introduced by Sens. McCain (R-Ariz.), Kerry (D-Mass.), and Hollings (D-S.C.) to require  about 36 mpg by 2016 for light-duty vehicles. Bergquist states, “Make no mistake, the Senate proposals would eliminate SUVs, minivans, and pickup trucks. If these proposals pass, the only place you’ll see a light truck is in a museum.” 6

      2007 – The Supreme Court’s historic decision in Massachusetts v. EPA paves the way for greenhouse gas standards from vehicles under the Clean Air Act.

      2010 – The average fuel economy of vehicles from Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler has stayed flat since 1985 at approximately 20 mpg. This is in large part because the automakers have focused on producing SUVs and pickups, in addition to lobbying against strict standards.

      2012 – The Obama administration reaches an agreement with automakers and the California Air Resources Board for unified national regulations for greenhouse gas emissions from light-duty vehicles. The standards are modest (~ 5% annual increase in fuel economy, or ~35.5 mpg by 2016 and 54.5 mpg by 2025) and include significant flexibilities for the automakers. However, policymakers sell the deal on the basis that the automakers publicly commit to the standards and pledge not to challenge the standards or California’s legal authority to regulate greenhouse gases in court. 7

      2015 – Volkswagen’s diesel-emissions cheating scandal comes to light. The International Council on Clean Transportation, Environmental Protection Agency, and California Air Resources Board discover that for a decade Volkswagen had installed a program in its engine software that activated emissions controls only during laboratory testing. Approximately 600,000 Volkswagen diesel cars in the United States (and more than 11 million cars worldwide) were emitting up to 40 times more nitrogen oxide than permitted. (Since then regulators have discovered that dozens of other vehicle models from several automakers similarly cheated diesel emissions tests.) 

      2016 – A “midterm evaluation” confirms that the Obama standards are easily attainable. Yet just days after Trump is elected as president, automakers and key industry groups like the Auto Alliance break their promise not to oppose the standards, lobbying Trump and the Environmental Protection Agency to roll them back.

      2019 – Trump reverses decades of policy to declare that state greenhouse gas and zero-emissions-vehicles standards, including California’s, are preempted by federal law. The Environmental Protection Agency thus revokes the waiver allowing California to set higher car standards than those under federal law. General Motors, 8 Mazda, Mitsubishi, and Toyota (among others) intervene in the suit, siding with the Trump administration.

      • The California Air Resources Board and four automakers — Ford, Honda, Volkswagen, and BMW of North America — announce a separate deal, 9 joined by Volvo in 2020. The agreement sets standards lower than the Obama standards (~ 3.7% improvement in annual fuel economy) and contains significant loopholes. Notably, all but one of the participating auto companies publicly committed to the higher Obama standards in 2009.

      2020 – The Trump administration releases new tailpipe and fuel efficiency standards for cars, gutting the previous standards. The Alliance for Automotive Innovation — representing manufacturers responsible for almost 99 percent of U.S. passenger-car sales, including those that agreed not to oppose the standard — intervenes on behalf of the Trump administration.

Photo of 100% electric vehicle by BrentDanley/Flickr