Cleaner Cars

By | Updated Dec 20, 2016 9:43 PM UTC

Slowing down climate change means cars and trucks that pollute less, and some drivers have already put their money into eco-friendly vehicles. But how clean is that clean car? Millions of Volkswagen diesel owners were surprised and infuriated to learn in 2015 that their engines only passed U.S. pollution tests by cheating. That’s far from the only thing that can go wrong. Regulators and automakers are all making big, and often conflicting, bets on which technologies and incentives will get us to a low-emissions future faster. Some wild cards include cheaper oil and rising demand for cars in developing nations.

The Situation

The climate change accord reached in Paris in December is expected to increase pressure for cleaner cars and trucks, which produce about a sixth of global carbon emissions and a quarter of the U.S. total. The pact came as the European Union was rethinking the tax incentives that helped diesel claim a market share of over 50 percent there. In the U.S., a federal standard calls for new cars to average 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025. Much tougher goals have been adopted by California, which accounts for one of every nine new U.S. vehicle sales and whose rules are followed by 10 other states. Both California and Japan are encouraging development of fuel cell cars, which create electricity by converting hydrogen to water, by building infrastructure for a network of fueling stations. Toyota and Honda are making big bets on fuel cells, along with Hyundai. To encourage fuel cell purchases, California is offering rebates of $5,000 per vehicle, twice what it offers for battery-powered electric vehicles. In Norway, heavily subsidized electric vehicles account for nearly a quarter of new car sales. In the U.S., sales of plug-in electric vehicles  fell 17 percent in 2015 as gas prices tumbled; they now account for less than 1 percent of all sales.

Source: Association Auxiliaire de l'Automobile (AAA)

The Background

The push for cleaner cars originally had nothing to do with climate change. In the 60s, California’s target was its worst-in-the-nation air pollution. In the 70s, the goal of U.S. fuel economy standards was to reduce oil imports. In the 90s, the government invested in a $1.5 billion effort to help Detroit’s struggling automakers build a “supercar” that would get 80 mpg. It never materialized. Europe pushed diesel, in part to reduce carbon emissions. Because diesel fuel can hold more energy than regular gas, diesel cars can go up to a third further on a gallon of fuel; European carmakers were also seen as having an edge in diesel. But the policy yielded less in carbon reductions and more in other pollutants than hoped for. California’s approach, called technology forcing, combines carrots and sticks — gradually tightening emissions standards for manufacturers and rebates for consumers willing to take a chance on a newer technology. The breakthrough vehicle for lower-emissions cars was the Toyota Prius, a gas-battery hybrid introduced in 1997 in Japan and worldwide in 2000. Skeptics pointed to the “long tailpipe” idea to question the benefits of electric cars, saying they were no cleaner than the fuel burned to generate their power. That meant that some clean cars were actually running on coal. But as the electric grid has gotten greener, so has the environmental advantage of battery-powered cars.

Source: Union of Concerned Scientists

The Argument

Critics of programs to nurture new crops of clean cars say the U.S. supercar and Europe’s diesel push show the dangers of governments picking winners among competing technologies. Others point to the rise in gas-guzzling SUVs and pickups in the U.S. since the price of gas started falling as proof that the effort runs counter to consumer preferences. Supporters say that California’s method of encouraging a range of technologies can avoid wrong turns while the plunging cost of producing electricity from renewable sources will narrow the price advantage of gasoline. But even proponents acknowledge that cheaper oil and rising demand for cars in China, India and other developing nations could swamp the benefit of lowering emissions from cars in the U.S. and Europe.

The Reference Shelf

  • The California Air Resources Board’s page on Zero Emission Vehicles.
  • The California Fuel Cell Partnership has information about models and fueling station locations.
  • A Bloomberg article on the decline in electric car sales in the U.S. in 2015.
  • A Guardian article on the rise of diesel in Europe and the health problems it brought.
  • The Union of Concerned Scientists’ page on cars and climate change.
  • A Bloomberg video on Volkswagen’s diesel emissions cheating scandal.

First published Jan. 29, 2016

To contact the writer of this QuickTake:
Dana Hull in San Francisco at

To contact the editor responsible for this QuickTake:
John O'Neil at