A recently published study in the journal Policy Sciences compares the differences in approach and policy-making styles taken in the 1990s by California and France to improve urban air quality by promoting clean vehicles, specifically electric vehicles (EVs).
The study highlights the differences in approach and policy-making style by both governments and how this might have affected the final outcome.
In 1990, California instituted the zero-emissions vehicle (ZEV) mandate that required zero-emission vehicles (ZEVs) to make up 2% new car sales starting in 1998, 5% by 2001 and 10% by 2003, with fines imposed for not reaching targets.
Both the oil and auto industries opposed this and lobbied heavily against it. There was intensive media coverage of the debate and environmentalists spoke out on both sides. All parties were locked in a confrontational relationship fueled by a longstanding mutual mistrust. Public participation was openly sought.
(This conflict is highlighted in the movie Who Killed the Electric Car?.)
Faced with the difficult problem of cleaning up the foul air of the cities of California, the CARB proposed an ambitious program that relied exclusively on technological improvements. The LEV program did not contemplate any action to induce Californians to drive less. The CARB’s policy choices have been consistent with a regulatory tradition in which policymakers have not favored the application of land-use planning, demand travel management and fuel tax policies as means to reduce automobile emissions. In the transportation sector there has been a clear preference for technology standards within the framework of command and control regulations while at the same time large investments in highway infrastructure combined with zoning rules effectively enabled and accelerated the phenomenon of suburbanization and urban sprawl.
The French mandate, however, was characterized by heavy government involvement. Much of the interaction between government and businesses was conducted ‘behind closed doors’, free of public scrutiny. Unlike in the US, no group ever complained that EVs were a problem. A treaty was made between the state-owned electricity company, the auto industry and local administrative institutions to contribute to the development of the EV. No penalties were imposed for failing to meet targets. Subsidies were provided to encourage individuals to buy EVs.
The diversity in the policies adopted reflect both practical and cultural differences between the USA and France, according to the study. American cities are characterized by urban sprawl (which makes EVs difficult to use), the gasoline tax is low and the environmental lobby is political and vocal. France’s cities, conversely, have a typically dense layout making EVs more practical. The nuclear power industry has little opposition and has excess capacity to provide electricity. Awareness of green issues in France is low and the high gasoline tax is a substantial source of revenue for the government.
In the end, the different ways used to achieve the same goal had no effect on the outcome. Both countries failed to reduce urban pollution in line with targets.
However, the stricter legislation in the USA compelled automakers to come up with an alternative solution which it did in the form of hybrid cars. This is typical, the authors observed, because in the US, technological solutions are preferred over behavioral change. In France, technological solutions are strongly related to national prestige as a form of cultural elitism. France failed to make this a ‘grand project’ and the lack of public awareness may have failed to drive it forward.
This comparison shows that individual cultures still have ‘standard operating procedures’ which reflect ‘deep-rooted national political and social cultures’ despite increasing globalization. It also suggests that governments should take into account the cultural dimension when promoting policy change, according to the authors.
What are the lessons from this comparative study? Technology forcing—a regulatory strategy apt for a society inspired by the promise of technological solutions—can work and can lead to substantial and important new innovations and capabilities. But the consequent technological evolution may follow unpredictable pathways, yielding unexpected results. Industrial policy also can work and has worked in other settings in France (and elsewhere), but the lackluster development of electric drive-train technology demonstrates that the success of industrial policy requires a firm institutional commitment, including, for example, the catalysis of markets or commitments to procure EVs for public fleets.
“The allure of technology: How France and California promoted electric and hybrid vehicles to reduce urban air pollution” Calef D and Goble R; Policy Sciences, Vol. 40, No. 1, DOI 10.1007/s11077-006-9022-7 (2007) (Open Access Article)