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How Administration Regs Could Affect The Future Of The Electric Car


Let's talk about another decision we could get from the White House soon. President Trump has promised to roll back tough fuel economy rules that were put in place by the Obama administration. The easing of fuel standards and tailpipe emissions is likely to set up a big fight with environmental groups and the states. It could take years for those battles to play out. But what is at stake in the near-term, the future of the electric car. NPR's Sonari Glinton reports.

SONARI GLINTON, BYLINE: All right, do me a favor and introduce yourself for me.

CHELSEA SEXTON: I am Chelsea Sexton, and I play with cars.

GLINTON: (Laughter) Play with cars, what do you mean by that?

SEXTON: I have worked in the auto industry for about 20 years primarily with electric vehicles.

GLINTON: Sexton was featured prominently in the film "Who Killed The Electric Car?" And now she consults car companies and utilities. And while she loves them, she says electric cars were vulnerable even before this administration.

SEXTON: Electric cars are still heavily dependent on external regulation. And therefore, most car companies are still offering very few numbers, limited capacity and range and all of those things and not even nationwide.

GLINTON: This is while Americans are ever more infatuated by trucks and SUVs. The regulations Sexton is talking about include CO2 emission rules in Europe, their rebates from federal and state governments, but most aggressively, the Obama administration's goal of getting the fleet above 50 miles per gallon. The Auto Alliance, the main industry group, wrote to the Environmental Protection Agency's Administrator Scott Pruitt upon his confirmation asking the agency to reverse the rules. Essentially, the car company said, why make us build electric cars when less than 4 percent of cars sold are electric?

And what's really selling now are trucks and SUVs. Again, Chelsea Sexton.

SEXTON: For as long as they can keep doing what they're doing and make money at it, there's not necessarily going to be a giant enthusiasm towards let's do this brand new thing that ultimately will make us money but will have us - cause a few hard years in between.

GLINTON: When Chevy makes a Silverado, they make thousands of dollars. When they make a Chevy Volt, they lose money. Now, some car makers have invested more than others. And it's hard to see Tesla, for instance, moving away from electric cars. But, Sexton says, that's about it.

SEXTON: And in fact, even some of the more aggressive automakers are likely to roll back their plans. And in a few years, we get the same Midwestern aw-shucks, we tried as hard as we could kind of story. But we - consumers, they just don't want those EVs yet. Maybe we'll come back later.

GLINTON: What you're saying is if these regulations are rolled back...


GLINTON: ...It's the new death of the electric car?

SEXTON: It's essentially what I just said, yeah. I mean, there is no guarantee that it continues without these regulations at all.

ROLAND HWANG: Well, you know, I think the main thing that we want to make sure people understand is that the Trump administration cannot undo these standards with a simple stroke of a pen.

GLINTON: Roland Hwang is director of transportation with the Natural Resources Defense Council.

HWANG: EPA must go through a formal process that's required by law. They have to notify, allow public comment before they actually issue a decision. And then we'll see them in court.

GLINTON: Reversing the EPA and the Department of Transportation rules could take as long as two years. Hwang says walking back the rules will have unintended consequences.

HWANG: And frankly, what it's going to do is it's going to throw the auto industry into chaos. To unwind these standards will be a years-long battle in the courts.

GLINTON: Environmentalists are holding out hope for the state of California, which sets tougher standards than the EPA because of a federal waiver. Now, many other states follow California's lead. But the Trump administration has indicated it will challenge California's special place. And that itself will be another fight. Sonari Glinton, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sonari Glinton is a NPR Business Desk Correspondent based at our NPR West bureau. He covers the auto industry, consumer goods, and consumer behavior, as well as marketing and advertising for NPR and Planet Money.