Rachael Brennan has been working in the insurance industry since 2006 when she began working as a licensed insurance representative for 21st Century Insurance, during which time she earned her Property and Casualty license in all 50 states. After several years she expanded her insurance expertise, earning her license in Health and AD&D insurance as well. She has worked for small health insuran...

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Chris Harrigan has an economic degree from Limestone College and an MBA from Clemson University. He previously managed auto insurance claims for Enterprise Rent-A-Car. Currently, he is using his business and insurance expertise to provide insurance data analysis and visualizations to enhance the user experience.

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Reviewed by Chris Harrigan
Former Auto Insurance Claims Manager Chris Harrigan

UPDATED: Mar 16, 2022

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Key Takeaways

  • Zero-Emission Vehicles is a program in California and nine other states
  • Green cars can be an electric, hybrid, or alternative fuel-powered
  • Some models qualify for state and federal rebates

Standard passenger cars and other light-duty vehicles make up 40 percent of the air pollution from transportation inputs. Depending on what fuel is burned by your car, its level of emissions and toxins could be adding to the deterioration of your cities air quality. Zero-emission vehicles are a tool used by several states to clean up the air through regulation and tax credits.

As a driver, a zero-emission vehicle is a non-mandatory method to lower your carbon footprint by lowering personal greenhouse gas emissions.

Sometimes referred to as “alternative fuel” by consumers, zero-emission vehicles are not powered by gasoline or diesel. There are many distinct types of these vehicles on the road powered by biofuels and innovative technologies. Air quality rules and state auto insurance requirements will vary, but the general concept is to lower total emissions.

In this guide, learn about cars with low emissions and how those vehicles are regulated in your state.

If you already have a zero-emission vehicle but need car insurance, look no further. Enter your ZIP code to speak with a car insurance company in your area.

What are zero-emission vehicles?

Carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrogen and sulfur oxides, particulate matter, and various other toxins enter the air every time we drive our cars. An auto manufacturer makes a zero-emission vehicle under a state rule to lower air pollution and improve air quality. These vehicles may be fully electric, powered by hydrogen fuel cells, or is plug-in hybrid vehicles.

Electric vehicles use a battery, which runs on charge and discharge cycles. So, you charge your vehicle up and use that electricity to power the car. Fuel cell electric vehicles are powered by hydrogen and only emit water vapor and warm air.

Though a more efficient engine type, fuel cell electric vehicles are far less common than standard electric vehicles.

Some examples:

  • A Nissan LEAF is battery powered
  • A Toyota Mirai has a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle
  • A Chevrolet Volt is a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle.

Zero emissions vehicles have extremely low smog and greenhouse pollutants that come directly from your tailpipe.

The production of electricity may involve some emissions level, so a “zero-emission vehicle” is a concept. The actual amount of greenhouse gases and pollutants emitted depends on your fuel source and where it originated.

That means your vehicle has two points of impact on the environment. There are vehicle tailpipe emissions and upstream emissions. The latter relates to the greenhouse gases associated with producing and distributing what is fueling your vehicle.

In most cases, an auto manufacturer will use ” zero-emissions vehicle “, denoting the requirement to lower vehicle tailpipe emissions.

Other terms are more commonly used among consumers attempting to lower their impact on the environment. You may find those terms in the next section.

What is a green vehicle?

According to Kelley Blue Book, the concept of cars that do not burn gasoline or diesel originated in the early 1970s during an oil crisis. The frenzy sparked an interest in alternative fuels to avoid soaring prices and benefit the environment.

A green vehicle is another term for a zero-emission vehicle, and another term that is common in the industry is an alternative fuel vehicle. The Environmental Protection Agency developed its own guide, separate from those of the states, for drivers to lower their carbon footprint.

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Zero-Emission Vehicle Programs 

Some states are on a mission to lower greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles by implementing an air quality standard for all cars on the road. California’s Air Resources Board enforces one of the largest of these programs.

Zero-Emission Vehicles in California was the first program to regulate the smog-causing pollutants and greenhouse gas emissions in passenger cars. Nine other states have adopted the same standards: Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Vermont.

In most cases, the goal of zero-emissions vehicles is to fulfill state regulations. We will discuss rules related to emissions and a list of eligible vehicles in the following sections.

How does a zero-emission vehicle program work?

In the ten states that enforce a zero-emission program, automakers are required to produce a certain number of vehicles per year that have the technology to lower or eliminate emissions from the vehicle. The number of vehicles a manufacturer must make varies based on the state.

The requirement for auto manufacturers in California, for example, is based on the company’s overall sales. So, if a company has higher sales than another company, they must make more of these alternative vehicles than their competitors each year.

The automakers get credits based on how efficient the vehicle is at not producing as many emissions as a standard gas-powered car. For consumers, these programs are often tied to monetary incentives in addition to the environmental benefit. In Vermont, for example, drivers may receive bill credit or rebates on electric or hybrid vehicles.

The federal government offers credits between $2,500 to $7,500 to buyers of eligible new plug-in electric vehicles.

What types of cars qualify as zero-emission vehicles?

Most mainstream manufacturers have alternative vehicles on the market. If you are looking for a car from any of the following manufacturers, you are guaranteed to find at least one option if you are in a state with a zero-emissions program.

The manufacturers include:

  • BMW
  • Fiat/Chrysler
  • Ford
  • General Motors
  • Honda
  • Hyundai
  • Kia
  • Nissan
  • Toyota
  • Volkswagen
  • Jaguar/Land Rover
  • Volvo

A zero-emission vehicle is electric, hydro fueled, or a hybrid of electric and gas-powered. So, if your vehicle has any of those features, you probably have a vehicle that falls under your state’s approved zero-emission vehicles list.

The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy records all the vehicles that qualify as low emitting and fuel-efficient vehicles under the EPA. The list includes zero-emission vehicles for 2021 and zero-emission vehicles for 2020. You can find the ACEEE list online.

Does insurance cost more for alternative fuel vehicles?

Car insurance is calculated on various factors, but zero-emission vehicles are more expensive to insure. This may be due to the cost of repairing parts, as electric cars are less common, and another reason green vehicles cost more to insure is that they cost more driving off the lot.

For example, a new, standard Ford Focus model costs $10,000 less than its electric counterpart, according to KBB. In some cases, the cost of the electric models is nearly 100 percent more than standard gas power.

However, as electric, and other alternative vehicles become more popular – thank you to Tesla — the associated costs may lower over time.

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The Bottom Line: Zero-Emission Vehicles

Zero-emission vehicles are generally a part of state-wide programs to lower air pollution. These cars are associated with state regulations that require automakers to produce and sell electric and alternative-fueled cars to achieve that goal.

For consumers, that means that it is becoming easier to purchase cars that don’t ruin the environment. Many mainstream car makers have created options that can fit any driver. If you can’t go fully electric, try a hybrid. If you can spend a little more on a new car, perhaps you go for the solar-powered Tesla. Either way, the market is growing for zero emission vehicles.

If you already have one of these green vehicles, speak with a local agent about insurance. Enter your ZIP code now to find someone in your area.