California is squaring off against automakers when it comes to electric cars

Mary Nichols California Air Resources Board
Mary Nichols, 70, tours a zero-emissions production facility. Rich Pedroncelli/AP Images

The most powerful woman in California isn’t a celebrity, she’s not even someone you often see on TV. That’s because the most powerful woman in California is Mary Nichols, head of the state’s Air Resources Board.

Rules set by Nichols’ agency are among the strictest environmental laws in the nation. Visionary quotas have been set under her reign to increase the percentage of new cars sold that are ZEV’s, that is, plug-in hybrids, battery-only, or fuel-cell vehicles.

Bloomberg News’ John Lippert reports that Nichols’ goal is for every new car sold in California by the year 2030 to be zero- or almost-zero-emissions, a quest which is taking a toll on automakers selling these efficient vehicles:

[Fiat Chrysler] Sergio Marchionne had a funny thing to say about the $US32,500 battery-powered Fiat 500e that his company markets in California as “eco-chic.” “I hope you don’t buy it,” he told his audience at a think tank in Washington in May 2014. He said he loses $US14,000 on every 500e he sells and only produces the cars because state rules require it. Marchionne, who took over the bailed-out Chrysler in 2009 to form Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, warned that if all he could sell were electric vehicles, he would be right back looking for another government rescue.

Marchionne’s predictions don’t faze Nichols. In 2013, TIME Magazine included her on their list of 100 most influential people in the world. They noted her unrelenting return to the statehouse under Jerry Brown’s leadership, having served during the governor’s first two terms from 1975-1982, before coming back in 2007.

“In her decades of service, she has seen the changes she pushed in California and D.C. — boosting fuel economy, cutting acid rain and greenhouse gases — become global standards,” the magazine wrote.

September will be the biggest test for the 70-year-old Nichols’ grand plans. That’s when her mandate of having only zero-emissions on California roads by 2050 will be debated and voted upon by the state legislature.

You can read the full profile of Mary Nichols — and her fight to change California’s highways as we know them — on Bloomberg Business. It’s worth the time.

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