The biggest news out of the LA Auto Show wasn’t even a car

Above: Automotive journalists surround Hyundai’s new electric plug-in hybrid concept crossover SUV, the Vision T, at the Los Angeles Auto Show’s press preview on November 20, 2019 (R. Nakano)

If you’re a gearhead reading Sri Chinmoy’s 1973 poem “Visions of the Emerald Beyond” for the first time, you’ll be forgiven if you think he was advocating the purchase of electric cars. I mean, really, what else can you conclude when he said “I shall buy only the weaving visions of the emerald beyond”?

Four Visions, and Counting

“Visions of the emerald beyond” seemed to be the theme of this year’s LA Auto Show. Not only was everyone trying to go green, no less than four electrified cars were on display carrying the “vision” moniker in one form or another: Hyundai had its Vision T plug-in electric hybrid concept SUV, Volkswagen introduced its electric ID. Space Vizzion concept crossover wagon, and Karma had two cars with the moniker—its all-electric Vision SC1 and the new Vision SC2 concept roadsters.

Karma’s electric Vision SC1 at the Los Angeles Auto Show (R. Nakano)

The Green Elephant in the Room

The biggest news out of the LA Auto Show wasn’t even a car—and none of the car companies were talking about it at the show: California officials announced the state would boycott the LA Auto Show. Moreover, California’s Department of General Services announced it will require state agencies, starting on January 1, 2020, to “only purchase vehicles from Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) that recognize the California Air Resources Board (CARB)’s authority to set greenhouse gas and zero emission vehicle standards, and which have committed to continuing stringent emissions reduction goals for their fleets.”

“The Fabulous Four”

So who are the OEMs that recognize CARB’s authority to set greenhouse gas and emission vehicle standards that are tougher than the federal standards? There are four: Ford, Volkswagen, Honda and BMW. California’s Air Resources Board Chair Mary Nichols dubbed them “The Fabulous Four”. Back in July of 2019, the four companies pledged to meeting California’s emissions and greenhouse gases standards. A fifth company, Tesla, didn’t sign any such agreement, but it already meets California’s future standards.

Volkswagen first introduced its electric ID. Space Vizzion Concept at the Petersen Museum, the day before its showing at the LA Auto Show on November 20, 2019 (R. Nakano)

Both Volkswagen and Ford held their new car unveilings outside the LA Auto Show. So while state officials didn’t attend the auto show, they did attend both Volkswagen’s and Ford’s off-sight unveilings—including the one for the biggest new car introduction of the season, the Mustang Mach E.

The Coalition Strikes Back

And which companies don’t recognize the state’s ability to set its own emission standards? The answer is complicated, but several car companies—including General Motors, Toyota, Fiat-Chrysler Automobiles, Nissan, Hyundai, Kia, Subaru, Isuzu, Suzuki, Maserati, McLaren, Aston-Martin and Ferrari—are now part of the Coalition for Sustainable Automotive Regulation, which filed papers on October 28, 2019 in support of the federal government’s effort to strip California from continuing to set its own emission standards. On that day, the Coalition issued the following statement:

“The Coalition for Sustainable Automotive Regulation announced that it is seeking to intervene in a lawsuit between California and the federal government, expressing the Coalition’s goal of achieving a unified fuel economy and greenhouse gas (GHG) program.” According to Global Automakers CEO and Coalition spokesperson John Bozzella, “The decision to intervene in the lawsuit is about how the standard should be applied, not what the standard should be.”

While the Coalition is trying to walk a fine line between sustainability and a uniform federal regulation, the federal government announced it will revoke California’s ability to set higher emissions standards than the ones set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. In addition, the U.S. Department of Justice is investigating the “fabulous four” for possible market collusion.

Karma’s electric Vision SC2 (Glenn Oyoung photo)

The Force Awakens

To state officials, this was tantamount to crossing the line in the sand. The state responded by announcing it would stop buying vehicles from GM, Toyota, Fiat Chrysler, and other makes that joined in the court action against California’s right to set its own standards. Said Air Resources Board Chair Nichols, “We’ve seen too much of talking out of both sides of their mouths coming from some of the larger companies and we simply can’t go along with it politely.”

Just weeks before the LA Auto Show, California, along with 22 others states, the cities of Los Angeles and New York, along with Washington DC, filed a lawsuit challenging the federal government’s announcement to take away the ability of a state to set stricter emissions standards.

Whose Vision of the Emerald Beyond?

Who’s vision of California’s emerald future will prevail? “Carmakers that have chosen to be on the wrong side of history will be on the losing end of California’s buying power,” declared a prepared statement issued by the California governor’s office on November 18th. At this stage of the controversy, it’s not that easy to determine who will be on the right side of history. It does, however, look like there will be few winners in the short term. One thing is for sure: This story will not end when the doors close at the LA Auto Show. This saga is just beginning.

The Mahavishnu Orchestra named its heralded 1975 jazz fusion album after Sri Chinmoy’s 1973 poem, “Visions of the Emerald Beyond (Columbia Records)”