The California Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV) rule, adopted in 1990, is arguably one of the most daring and controversial air quality policies ever adopted. Some consider it a policy failure, while others credit it with launching a revolution in clean automotive technology. This paper is the first systematic empirical study of the policy process that resulted in the adoption of the ZEV mandate. We draw upon theoretical frameworks of the policy process, empirical data from public documents, and personal interviews with key stakeholders, to explain how a confluence of technology, policy, and political circumstances created a window of opportunity that led to the adoption of this policy. We expect the conclusions of our analysis to be useful to other policy debates that involve technological innovation.