Governor Brown’s Biggest Climate Foe Isn’t Trump. It’s Car-Loving Californians

5 min
Electric cars are growing in the Bay Area, but are only 6 percent of new vehicle sales statewide. (Anne Wernikoff)

California is hosting an international summit this week to push for global action on climate change. While the Trump Administration steadily rolls back climate policies — or attempts to — cities, states and businesses from around the world are pledging major action to cut carbon emissions.

On Monday, Gov. Jerry Brown set the stage by signing a new state law to be using 100 percent clean energy by 2045. He also issued an even broader, but less fully developed, executive order for California to be free of fossil fuels altogether by mid-century.

But if California is going to reach its ambitious climate change targets, the state will have to tackle its toughest challenge yet: cars, and the Californians who love them. Transportation is the state’s top source of carbon emissions and those emissions are still climbing.

It will take a complete transformation. To produce enough emissions cuts, every new vehicle sold in California will have to be plug-in by 2040.

Today, electric and plug-in hybrid cars are only six percent of new vehicle sales in the state.

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To get them on the roads, California is requiring automakers to sell zero-emission vehicles in the state. The goal is 5 million vehicles by 2030. Nine other states have similar policies.

Gov. Jerry Brown also unveiled $2.5 billion plan to increase charging stations and expand rebates.

"But changing the minds of car-loving Californians is a less straightforward problem.

Electric cars have made major inroads in the Bay Area and Los Angeles. In Palo Alto, where Teslas are a common sight, plug-in cars made up 29 percent of new vehicle sales in 2017.

“I’m getting green vehicle, an electric vehicle,” says Pablo Chang-Castillo, picking up his brand-new, black Chevy Bolt at Concord Chevrolet. He says using electricity instead of gas will save him money on his long commute.

Still, the majority of car buyers have a different take.

“My wife just told me her car’s too small,” says Mark Bauhs, who is test-driving mid-size SUVS. “So, I need a bigger car.”

An electric car isn’t on his shopping list.

“I haven’t quite moved over to electric cars yet,” he says. “It definitely has never crossed my mind for a family car.”

Gov. Brown has approved a plan to massively expand charging stations. (Anne Wernikoff)

“The main issue is that most of the Californians are not aware of the benefit and opportunity of buying plug-in electric cars,” says Gil Tal, who directs the Plug-in Hybrid and Electric Vehicle Research Center at UC Davis.

While interest in electric cars is growing, surveys show that most people don’t know much about them.

“It’s the same as what I know about convertibles,” says Tal. “They are out there. That’s it. I know nothing more than that.”

Tal says that in California, electric cars are cleaner than gas cars, because the electricity comes from a growing amount of solar and wind power.

“If you buy an electric car today and you drive it for 10 years in California,” he says, "your car will be cleaner every year."

That might be an incentive for some buyers, but there’s still a perception that electric cars aren’t practical. Tal says that with technological advances, that’s no longer the case.

Many electric cars go more than 200 miles on a charge, so most drivers only really need to charge them at home, not everywhere they go.

Newer models of electric cars are more affordable and automakers plan to release new plug-in crossovers and SUVs. In California, a buyer can get $10,000 back in federal tax credits and state rebates on a new car.

But Tal says that doesn’t necessarily inspire everyone to switch.

“It is ambitious because there is nothing really wrong with the cars we drive today,” he says. “The electric car isn’t so different that we will dump whatever we have and buy electric.”

And car buyers usually don’t change their minds once they get to a dealership.

“A lot of the purchase process happens ahead of showing up,” he says. “At the dealer is usually too late to shift someone to buy electric.”

Does It Pay to Advertise?

The question is, if people make up their mind before going to a dealer, and electric cars are not on their radar, how could a manufacturer reach them?

Probably not by advertising. Chances are most people have never seen a television ad for an electric car from a major car company.

Electric cars use the carpool lane onramp to the Bay Bridge. (Anne Wernikoff)

“This is a very difficult segment,” says Steven Majoros, marketing director for Chevrolet Cars & Crossovers. “It’s a difficult product proposition.”

So far, Chevy hasn’t run a national TV spot for the Chevy Bolt, just regional ads in markets like the Bay Area.

“Let’s just be realistic,” he says. “How big is the EV market? In the United States, right, it’s about one, one-and-a-half percent of the market. So, we have to always balance market demand, market size with how much we — quote, unquote — advertise.”

That’s a trend across automakers. According to one analysis, major car companies only spend a fraction on advertising electric cars compared with their best-selling models.

Volkswagen is running a public service announcement for electric cars, but they are required to do that.  It's part of the penance for an emissions-cheating scandal.

Chevy is counting on word of mouth.

“We like to say I’d rather have 100 people drive a Bolt EV than have 10,000 people just hear about it,” Majoros says. “So, we invested very heavily in experiential activities with drive events, auto shows.”

Emotional Attachments

Even then, electric cars face another hurdle: our car culture.

“The automobile is an emotional object,” says Mimi Sheller, professor of sociology at Drexler University, pointing to  the messaging we get in car ads.

“There’s a long history of associations with masculinity and speed and power,” Sheller says. “I think we are influenced in many ways by all those cultural suggestions that are around us."

Ads for jeeps might show the tires grinding through deep mud, and ads for SUVs might show focus on families, highlighting safety, protectiveness and caring.

“We buy the car for very different reasons than what we use the car for,” says Tal. “It’s an extension of our personality, in a way.”

Today, demand for trucks and SUVs is up in the U.S. So, Sheller says, the switch to a new technology, from gas to electric, might take a disruption of some kind, like high gas prices, or a generational shift.

“There’s a younger generation, kind of millennial or post-millennial generation, who maybe have a different feeling towards owning cars,” she says, "and are more sympathetic to electric vehicles."

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Bottom line: If California is going to meet its climate change targets, residents will have to change how they think about cars – and soon.