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Gas-car ban offers a hybrid loophole — and more options for Mass. drivers

California’s ban on the sale of new gasoline-powered cars by 2035 will permit certain plug-in hybrid vehicles, like electric cars, as pictured at the Motor Show in Essen, Germany, but also have an internal combustion engine that kicks in when the battery is drained.Martin Meissner/Associated Press

California’s ban on the sale of new gasoline-powered cars by 2035 isn’t a total ban after all. And that could make life a little easier for some drivers in Massachusetts, which plans to follow California’s lead.

The California regulations specify that in the future, new cars and light trucks must be “zero-emission vehicles.” In principle, these are vehicles that don’t spew toxic exhaust or greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide. But the state’s regulators decided to permit certain kinds of plug-in hybrid vehicles. These are cars that can be recharged through a power outlet, like “pure” electric cars, but which also have an internal combustion engine that kicks in when the battery is drained.

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So when 2035 rolls around, 20 percent of the new vehicles sold in California can be plug-in hybrids, as long as they can travel a minimum of 50 miles on battery power alone. That’s according to the new rule, as written by the California Air Resources Board.

“These are essentially electric cars with conventional motors for special circumstances,” said Dave Clegern,a spokesman for the board. He said that carving out an exception for hybrids “addresses a variety of needs, including for those living in rural areas who do not have access to public chargers.”

Clegern estimates that about 75 percent of all trips made by long-range plug-in hybrids will use only battery power. In addition, the hybrids’ gasoline engines will be subject to stringent environmental standards to minimize their impact on air quality.

And the number of these hybrids will be capped at 20 percent of the new car market, no matter how many consumers might want one. The remaining 80 percent must be pure electric vehicles, powered by batteries or perhaps by fuel cell systems, which combine hydrogen gas with oxygen from the air to create electricity, with water vapor as the only waste product.

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There are already plenty of plug-in hybrid cars on the market, but hardly any with a battery-only range of 50 miles or more. One exception, the Polestar 1 luxury sedan, offers a battery with 53 miles of range and a $156,000 price tag. More commonplace plug-in hybrids can travel 30 to 40 miles before needing to crank up the gasoline engine. Still, carmakers could offer longer-range plug-in hybrids by 2035, especially if state laws offer a special carve-out.

The climate protection bill signed into law in August by Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker committed the state to follow California’s lead on zero-emission vehicles. But it’s unclear whether Massachusetts will adopt every detail of the California plan. The state’s Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs said Massachusetts could adopt California’s standard under a provision of the federal Clean Air Act, but did not say whether the state would permit sales of plug-in hybrids.

However, there’s been a backlash against the California plan in the state of Virginia. In 2021, then-Governor Ralph Northam, a Democrat, enacted a law that promised to emulate California’s zero-emission car policy. But Virginia’s current governor, Republican Glenn Youngkin, has called the law “ludicrous,” and vowed this week to seek its repeal.


Hiawatha Bray can be reached at hiawatha.bray@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.