"So what I worry about is just, if the incentive to push forward goes away and folks feel like they can relax, do we start to go backwards?" former Obama Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx told reporters last week.
But there's a big reason why they might not pull back aggressively. California and 13 other states have a waiver that allows them to set stricter requirements on vehicle emissions, which are tied to fuel economy, than the rest of the nation. Some include the requirement that automakers sell zero-emission vehicles. Unless the Trump administration seeks to withdraw California's ability to set its own standards — which is possible but would likely trigger a legal battle — automakers may continue manufacturing these vehicles to maintain access to the crucial California market.
Plus, automakers don't want to fall behind in the technological race. Although most consumers have spurned current electric vehicles, the declining cost of batteries will eventually lower prices, potentially sparking more interest. Auto companies need to be ready.
Lastly, if auto companies are making environmentally friendly vehicles for foreign markets, they will still have the opportunity to offer them in the U.S., as well.
"All of the big players are global," Gartner Inc. auto analyst Mike Ramsey said. "Car companies are going to have to invest in these technologies."
Will Trump straighten out autonomous vehicle regulations?
By all accounts, Trump has shown little interest so far in addressing one of the auto industry's greatest concerns in Washington: that the growing thicket of self-driving car regulations among the states will throttle innovation.
The Obama administration's Transportation Department had signaled plans to help develop a national framework of regulations governing self-driving car testing, for example.
With few clues on how Trump views the matter, industry analysts said whatever action he takes is likely to favor the industry.
Ramsey said it seems likely Trump will "take a light hand on regulation." On the other hand, concerns over job losses among blue-collar workers such as truckers and taxi drivers could fuel policies to protect workers from autonomous vehicles, he said.