Perspectives

Electric Vehicles’ Slow Merge Into the Fast Lane

Sales are lagging in the proving ground of California. But maybe it's too early to be keeping score.

by / February 13, 2017
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As home to almost half of all of the electric vehicles (EVs) being sold in the United States, California is clearly the nation's proving ground for their deployment. But the trend is not promising. With about 71,000 zero-emission vehicles (ZEVs) being bought annually in the state, the adoption rate is less than half of what will be needed to reach California's target of 1.5 million ZEVs on its roads by 2025.

The vast majority of ZEVs are expected to be electric vehicles, and California's state government is pushing hard for their adoption with a combination of regulation and incentives such as rebates to purchasers on top of the federal tax credits they can receive. Still, the rate is lagging, leaving transportation experts to debate why that's the case in a state legendary for its green attitudes and activist mindset.

During last November's Los Angeles Auto Show, for example, the California Electric Transportation Coalition hosted a roundtable luncheon on the status of the EV market that included representatives of utilities and automakers along with state and local government leaders. A panel of experts was divided on the most significant barriers to widespread adoption between "lack of a full range of EV models" and "inadequate public charging infrastructure."

One organization that's deeply involved in the issue is CALSTART, a coalition that works with business, fleets and governments on clean transportation solutions. "We're not seeing the public-access infrastructure as being as much of a challenge to getting easy deployment," Joseph Oldham, director of CALSTART's San Joaquin Valley Clean Transportation Center, said in an interview. "People have figured that this thing is amazing as a commute vehicle," he said, adding that EV owners particularly appreciate never having to go to the gas station. To Oldham, the biggest challenge seems to be getting the word out that these vehicles even exist.

History certainly supports the value consumers place on ease of use. The first low-emission auto to significantly capture Californians' interest -- and dollars -- was the Toyota Prius. The gasoline-electric hybrid got fantastic mileage, drove well, had great reliability and at one point was the bestselling car in the state. An important factor in its success was that it required no change in how you fueled your car.

Unlike the Prius, however, plug-in EVs require the buildout of an entirely new fueling infrastructure, in parallel with existing gasoline service stations, to move them beyond their limited role as commuter cars. To service the growing number of longer-range EVs, such as the different Tesla models and the new Chevy Bolt, an expanded fast-charger network will be required. These devices, which bring an EV's battery to 80 percent of its capacity in about 30 minutes, make EVs truly comparable to gasoline-fueled cars for distance travel.

These advances will no doubt raise consumer confidence in EVs and accelerate their deployment. But to think that better cars and a wider network of charging facilities define the path to 1.5 million EVs in California would be to miss the mark. "We're still planning for electric vehicles with the assumption that these are going to be individually owned vehicles with similar driving patterns as the past," Kate Meis, executive director of California's nonprofit Local Government Commission, observed in an interview. "I don't think that's a safe assumption anymore. We need to be thinking about autonomous vehicles and the changes that they will bring."

Meis is raising the provocative issue of what the EV landscape will look like when there is widespread use of self-driving vehicles with the potential for them to operate as micro transit and car-shared transport. This clearly ties EVs and their charging infrastructure into the broader transformation of the entire transportation system now underway across the country.

So, how does all of this fit into the question of California's lagging EV adoption trendline? The adoption rate probably won't prove to be a straight line. Rather, we're likely to see an inflection point, perhaps five or 10 years in the future, where the intersection of improved battery technology, expanded charging infrastructure and a wider range of better, lower-cost vehicles brings about an exponential adoption rate.

There are too many factors simultaneously at play to make an accurate forecast today. There is, however, one very positive outcome that will most certainly come to pass: cleaner air. Regardless of which way technology turns, that will be a win for Californians and for Americans in other places that follow the path California is blazing.

This article was originally published on Governing.