All advanced industrialized societies face the problem of air pollution produced by motor vehicles. In spite of striking improvements in internal combustion engine technology, air pollution in most urban areas is still measured at levels determined to be harmful to human health. Throughout the 1990s and beyond, California and France both chose to improve air quality by means of technological innovation, adopting legislation that promoted clean vehicles, prominently among them, electric vehicles (EVs). In California, policymakers chose a technology-forcing approach, setting ambitious goals (e.g., zero emission vehicles), establishing strict deadlines and issuing penalties for non-compliance. The policy process in California called for substantial participation from the public, the media, the academic community and the interest groups affected by the regulation. The automobile and oil industries bitterly contested the regulation, in public and in the courts. In contrast, in France the policy process was non-adversarial, with minimal public participation and negligible debate in academic circles. We argue that California’s stringent regulation spurred the development of innovative hybrid and fuel cell vehicles more effectively than the French approach. However, in spite of the differences, both California and France have been unable to put a substantial number of EVs on the road. Our comparison offers some broad lessons about how policy developments within a culture influence both the development of technology and the impact of humans on the environment.