CA DMV Fails New Electric Drivers


I am 16 years old and a Malibu High School student, and I didn’t initially pass my driving test at the California DMV because I was driving a new electric car. I received an automatic fail due to “relying on regenerative braking.” Regenerative braking simply means that the car slows down when you release the gas pedal quicker than when you do so with a gas car. It serves to boost energy efficiency. A 2021 Tesla cannot turn this off. This is the way the car drives. It was thus not possible to pass the driving test in a new Tesla.


For the last year, I spent considerable energy convincing my parents to go electric. My pleas eventually won them over, and they went fully electric in 2021. In this small way, I was making a difference. Vehicle emissions from burning gasoline and diesel fuels contain toxic pollutants and account for 80% of smog-causing air pollution in California.


California is supposed to lead the way to zero emissions and show the country and world how to get there faster. Governor Gavin Newsom signed an executive order in September 2020 to have all new passenger car and truck sales in the state be all-electric by 2035. Governor Newsom stated at the press conference that those who oppose the move will find themselves “on the wrong side of history.” Yet, the California Department of Motor Vehicles, a part of the California State Transportation Agency, is opposing the move. 


When we pulled up to the DMV for the driving test with our Tesla, the examiner looked exasperated and asked if we could turn off the regenerative braking. This was apparently possible in older Teslas but is no longer an option. Although we said no, he allowed me to take the test. I drove the course, and when we arrived back at the DMV, I fully expected to receive my license. Instead, I was told I received an automatic fail because the car slowed down before my foot was on the brake. I was stunned and disappointed. There is no way to avoid this in a new Tesla. 


My fail fell under the critical driving error category of “auxiliary equipment use.” The comments section read “Applicant relied on regenerative braking to slow vehicle.” In contrast to the DMV examiner’s claim, this is not even how the critical error “auxiliary equipment use” is meant to be used. 


We spoke to the Supervisor at the DMV. She tried to claim that the DMV does not disallow electric cars for driving tests, while also acknowledging that this is effectively untrue for new Teslas. We told her that they were punishing drivers who had gone electric. Regenerative braking is a way of taking the wasted energy from the process of slowing down a car and using it to recharge the car’s batteries. On a gas car, braking wastes energy. With regenerative braking, some of the energy can be reused. The DMV is therefore failing electric drivers for the very aspect of the car that is conserving energy. 


The DMV Supervisor said that we were not the first to complain about the unfairness of the situation. Online forums also suggest that mine is not an isolated incident. But she said that her instructions were coming from the state of California. At worst, the California DMV is failing all drivers with new electric cars; at best, it is evaluating them inconsistently. The Supervisor said she expected that the DMV would ultimately need to adjust its thinking, but it is not there yet. Just a few days ago, a story broke about another similar incident.


My family now has only electric cars. I had to borrow my grandfather’s car for my subsequent driving test, which I passed with no problem. I needed to take that test quickly because I also convinced my grandfather to order a new electric car. 


My generation will live with the consequences of backward thinking. My generation wants change today. Slow adaptation of deep-rooted rules enforced by state agencies is failing us. We want change that is not riddled with hypocrisy or bottlenecked by bureaucracy. 


Joshua Brand, 16


Author Biography: Joshua Brand is a Sophomore at Malibu High School. He is interested in emerging technologies that improve social and environmental conditions.


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