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Electric Car Sales Are Stalled In Nation's Biggest Market: California

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Brian Feeney with his new Nissan Leaf, an electric car. (Iris Schneider/CALmatters)

The day Brian Feeney walked into a Palm Springs dealership to buy a new Nissan Leaf, he was fulfilling the dream of state policy-makers to entice Californians to break off their love affair with gas-guzzling cars. But the amount of meticulous research that went into Feeney’s purchase was identical to the amount of carbon emissions his all-electric Leaf would spew into the atmosphere: zero.

So, the salesman asked, how are you planning to get it home? Feeney blinked. His Pasadena house was more than 100 miles away—beyond the Leaf’s battery range.

In the end, his fun new car was delivered to his home hitched to the back of a tow truck.

The story is an apt metaphor for California’s similarly impulsive embrace of zero emission vehicles—and the logistical challenges of figuring out how to get from point of origin to ultimate destination. Like Feeney, the state knew little about the market for electric vehicles before mandating a widespread and expensive transportation reboot designed to dramatically cut tailpipe emissions. And, like Feeney’s foray, the state’s electric car adventure has gotten off to a shaky start.

Now, a half-dozen years into Gov. Jerry Brown’s futuristic vision of carbon-free transportation, California is encountering even more potholes along the electric highway — obstacles born from both practicalities and politics. Consumers, put off by high costs and concerned about limited range, just aren’t buying into the state’s ambitious aims. As a market share, hybrid electric and fully electric cars have been stuck at only 3 percent of new cars sold in the state. Undaunted, the state intends that by 2025, just nine years from now, zero-emission cars will make up 15 percent of California’s new car fleet—a five-fold increase.


While more electric cars are sold every day, a study for the Natural Resources Defense Council estimates that the state will meet only half the goal by 2025 unless vital changes are made.


Lawmakers Send Mixed Messages

Exactly how this will happen is anybody’s guess. The state is relying on the requirements it’s placed on carmakers to get us there. The industry’s response: We can make the cars, but we can’t make people buy them. And car buyers? At the moment, most of them prefer bigger, fuel-slurping cars — especially with gasoline relatively cheap — and they’re put off by the larger price tags and smaller driving range of electric cars.

The state of California has exercised its own policy-making power to help overcome these practical problems: issuing financial incentives for the purchase of low-emission cars, encouraging entrepreneurs and utilities to build out a network of convenient charging stations, and rewarding carmakers for filling the market. But political support from the Legislature has been erratic.

The Legislature took until the last week of its session before finally topping up the funds in the state’s low-emissions vehicle rebate program. It also failed to approve a bill that would have codified the electric vehicle goals as law.

The maneuvering revealed a split among the Democrats who dominate the Legislature: environmentalist coastal lawmakers running up against resistance from moderate Democrats representing poorer districts. Many of those lawmakers have received major campaign contributions from the oil industry. The pushback, which framed the debate around environmental justice issues, led lawmakers to agree to specific spending to make zero emission cars and charging stations more accessible for low income communities.

It may not be enough.

“Our trajectory for 2025 is OK,” said state Air Resources Board commissioner Hector de la Torre. “After 2025 is where we are not doing so great. There’s an order of magnitude to go beyond.”

Via a 2012 Executive Order, Gov. Brown called for 1.5 million zero-emission vehicles in operation statewide by 2025. That number today: about 220,000. The governor’s order also set a target that by 2050, “virtually all personal transportation in the state will be based on zero-emission vehicles.”

“We are way behind, we are really way behind,” said Michael Schneider, Chief Environmental Officer at San Diego Gas & Electric.

Low-Income Residents Left Behind

Consumers often like the idea of buying an electric car, at least in theory.  But purchasing still-emerging technology comes at a steep price. A Nissan Leaf runs about $30,000, a Chevrolet Volt about $35,000. That makes mid-sized electrics $5,000-$10,000 more expensive than comparable gasoline models. Tesla’s boutique models are in the “if you have to ask…” category, topping out at more than $137,000.

Although seven other states have joined California in establishing  programs to juice sales of zero emission cars, California has lagged in expanding ownership much beyond wealthier coastal areas. Research shows that higher-income neighborhoods are buying these cars at ten times the rate of lower-income areas — a gap that’s widening.

Getting zero emission cars into garages in disadvantaged communities is enlightened self-interest for everyone: lower income Californians tend to live in areas with the worst air quality, are more likely to have longer commutes, and do so in older, more polluting cars. “If you are being realistic about meeting these targets, you need to target communities of color,” said Joel Espino, an attorney with the Greenlining Institute.

Scott Mercer and Abdellah Cherkaoui with the electric car charging service, Volta
Scott Mercer and Abdellah Cherkaoui with the electric car charging service, Volta (Andrea Kissack/KQED)

Officials are working on it. Need-based programs in parts of Los Angeles and the San Joaquin Valley provide rebates and low interest loans—as much as $13,500—to allow low-income drivers to buy low-emission vehicles.

Assemblyman Jim Cooper (D-Elk Grove) is a business-friendly Democrat who proposed a bill that would have expanded the rebate program into his district. The bill stalled, leaving Cooper fed up with the incentive program.

“We’re not meeting the goals right now of reaching the middle class and poor people,” he said.  “People who are wealthy buy electric cars to drive in carpool lane and get to work quicker. Meanwhile, poor people are in their old clunkers. It’s crazy. Areas that really need the cleaner air—the ones that suffer the most—not much is being done. I’m really soured on the whole thing. I like electric vehicles but I am not supportive of welfare to the rich.”

Sustainability Not Included

Since 2009 California has offered rebates to consumers: $5,000 for hydrogen fuel vehicles, $2,500 for full-battery electric cars, and $1,500 for plug-in hybrids. Added to a federal tax credit of up to $7,500, these incentives have kept the engine of the zero-emission car market ticking over.

But the federal incentive is set to phase out in 2019 and the state capped income eligibility at $250,000 a year.

Willing buyers are frustrated by the waiting list to receive state reimbursement, via a fund replenished by the Legislature’s 11th hour injection of $365 million from the proceeds of California’s cap-and-trade auctions. The changing landscape has led to what manufacturers describe as a “purchasing pause.”

Jamie Hall, who manages the advanced vehicle program at General Motors, said car makers “are no longer talking about incentives because it’s on-again off-again. This is creating confusion in the market.”

There’s also “range anxiety,” the newfangled term for concern that motorists will be stranded without a charge or made to wait for hours re-energizing their car’s battery. From the teeny Smart Car’s average range of 68 miles to the Leaf’s 107, affordable electric cars are limiting.

“We need to build the rest of the machine,” said John Bozzella, president of Global Automakers, an industry group representing a dozen vehicle manufacturers. “If I am in a community and I don’t see a single charging station, my view will be that these technologies are still exotic. I’ll wait ten years.”

The state has only about 10,000 public charging stations—too few to service the anticipated surge of clean car sales, should a million more chargeable cars flood the roads.

The Cool Factor

But public and private institutions are quickly adding stations, in part to comply with the state’s building code that requires new construction to be ‘charge ready.’

On the optimistic side, more than half of the nation’s stock of battery electric, plug-in hybrid and hydrogen vehicles are sold in California. And more than two dozen different low-emission vehicle models are for sale here, with more on the way.

California has the bad timing to be goosing along electric cars at a time when gasoline prices have fallen, consumers are showing a stronger appetite for larger cars, and Millennials—a natural constituency for “cool cars”—seem more interested in ride-sharing than car-buying.

Yet more than 400,000 people have put down $1,000 deposits on Tesla’s Model 3, the company’s “affordable” $35,000 sedan, which is promised for delivery by the end of next year, and there is heightened consumer interest in the newly-released Chevy Bolt, an all-electric with a 230-mile range.

And those 20-somethings who use using ride-hailing services? Researchers say that the more frequently they ride in electric cars, the more likely they are to purchase one—and electrics are becoming more popular among Uber and Lyft drivers.

One of those Uber drivers is the semi-retired Feeney.

He’s on the waiting list for a Tesla.


CALmatters is a non-profit journalism venture dedicated to exploring state policies and politics. For more stories by Julie Cart go to calmatters.org/about/staff/julie-cart

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