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A large majority of California’s cars and trucks will be powered by electricity or hydrogen by 2050, a panel of transportation experts said this month.

The discussion, hosted by the Commonwealth Club of California and San Jose State University’s Mineta Transportation Institute, focused on the potential of a transportation system that is no longer largely reliant on fossil fuels.

In addition to the panel, the virtual event included remarks from U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Alex Padilla and Caltrans Director Toks Omishakin.

“Our department is emphatically embracing the electrification of California,” Omishakin said. “We know the many rewards to be reaped from such a shift to (electric vehicles) are unprecedented, and these rewards can be beneficial to all.”

Omishakin noted that even if vehicle operators across the state wanted to switch entirely to electric vehicles right now, they would still be limited by a relative lack of medium- and heavy-duty electric vehicle and charging technology, non-reimbursable costs for vehicles like zero-emission buses and the amount of time it will take to fully switch to electric vehicles.

“We talk about incentives for electric vehicles — great idea, but those incentives are benefiting the folks higher up the economic ladder, because they’re the ones actually buying new vehicles.”

Carlos Braceras, Utah Department of Transportation

The panel — consisting of MTI National Transportation Finance Center Director Asha Weinstein Agrawal, Bloom Energy Executive Vice President for Government Affairs and Policy Carl Guardino, Utah Department of Transportation Executive Director Carlos Braceras and University of California Davis civil and environmental engineering professor Dan Sperling — argued that obstacles also remain for the general public to switch to electric and zero emission vehicles.

“We talk about incentives for electric vehicles — great idea, but those incentives are benefiting the folks higher up the economic ladder, because they’re the ones actually buying new vehicles,” Braceras said. “That’s going to be something we have to really focus on is how do we provide that more equitable distribution of the benefits of an electric vehicle.”

Guardino noted that current transportation and infrastructure funding sources like gas and carbon taxes and potential sources like mileage fees and increased vehicle registration fees could ultimately hurt the general public, particularly lower-income people, financially rather than enticing them to switch to a zero-emission vehicle.

(Video courtesy of Commonwealth Club of California/YouTube)

“In the nine-county Bay Area … we have hard-working folks, as we return to a physical office environment, that are once again going to be commuting two, three hours each way, each day,” Guardino said.

“As we consider revenue sources like vehicle miles traveled, we have to be very careful from an equity perspective that we’re not burdening a lot of poor folks who are making these long-distance commutes with often very few options other than an automobile,” he said.

Ultimately, however, the panelists agreed that a significant rise in the use of electric and other zero-emission vehicles is coming sooner rather than later as well as an increase in micro transit methods like bicycling and a change in the design of urban areas that will make personal vehicles less necessary.

“We will be amazed at the technological change that can and will happen over those 29 years,” Guardino said when asked to predict the state of transportation in 2050, adding that “29 years ago in 1992 … almost none of the advances that we see today were created, or even thought of outside of a great science fiction novel.”