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Widespread EV Adoption Will Require Infrastructure, Education

A report by the International Council on Clean Transportation looked at the growth of the electric vehicle market across the U.S. It found that adoption is strongest in urban centers and along the east and west coasts.

Electric vehicle ownership continues to rise across the country, with a majority of the cars concentrated on the East and West coasts, and clustered in cities.

Even though electric vehicle registrations rose across more than 900 metropolitan statistical areas in 2018, the transition from gas- to electric-powered cars remains incremental, still slowed by the buildout of public charging infrastructure and consumer anxiety around issues like battery range or reliability, but perhaps more so, by a lack of EV model availability and general consumer education.

Roughly half of the nearly 1.4 million EVs on the nation’s highways are in California, with cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Diego leading in terms of the number of EVs per capita, according to a June report by the International Council on Clean Transportation. In San Jose, the epicenter of Silicon Valley, some 21 percent of cars on the road are electric-powered. 

Similarly, 2.1 percent of light-duty vehicle registrations nationwide were for electric vehicles in 2018. New electric-vehicle registrations climbed 72 percent from 2017 to 2018, according to the report titled "The surge of electric vehicles in United States cities." The largest metros in the nation accounted for 80 percent of electric vehicle registrations in 2018.

“In general, the distribution of EVs throughout the U.S. is largely dictated by whether the state has adopted the California ZEV Mandate or not,” said Zach Henkin, deputy director for Forth Mobility, an EV education and advocacy group in Portland, Ore.

The ZEV Mandate, shorthand for Zero Emission Vehicle, is a statewide directive, led by California and taken up by 11 other states: Connecticut, Maine, Rhode Island, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Vermont, Oregon, Washington and Colorado. The requirement says automakers must have a percentage of their cars as battery, plug-in or plug-in hybrid available for sale in these states.

“If a state is not a ZEV state, there are many vehicles that will simply never be seen in that market,” said Henkin. For example, New Orleans, a major metro in oil and gas industry heavyweight Louisiana, has the least number of EVs per capita, and only about five models available, according to the report.

And if dealerships show little interest in the EVs, they probably will not end up on the lot.

“Automakers are dependent on dealers asking for the plug-ins for their lots, and dealerships, in many parts of the country, rural parts especially, aren't seeing a need to stock the cars,” said Henkin. “Automakers hands are ‘tied’ as they need the dealership to ask for the cars, and dealers will only ask for the cars if they think they can sell them.”

“One of the things that’s really important, now that we have longer range, lower cost EVs… Can you get them?” echoed Jonathan Levy, vice president for strategic initiatives at EVgo, the nation’s largest vehicle fast-charging network.

“And you can get them in California. And you can also get them in other ZEV states. But it’s harder to get them in non-ZEV states,” he added. California car-shoppers have 41 EV models to choose from, according to Veloz, a Sacramento-based nonprofit dedicated to growing the adoption and understanding of electric cars by consumers.

The easy availability of public chargers is another factor influencing buyers, and infrastructure providers say they are in the delicate position of wanting to deploy enough chargers to meet and grow demand, but not sit idle.

“It means you’re going to build where there are more people, and more cars,” said Levy.

Public charging opportunities — particularly in workplaces — has shown to grow EV adoption. The five cities with the highest EV market share had 2.5 to 4.5 times the average amount of public chargers.

“Where we see the most use is both, where there is the highest adoption of individual electric vehicles, like California mainly, but elsewhere,” said Levy, noting the transition of fleets from gas to electric as well as incentives to make ride-hailing drivers choose electric.

“Ride-share drivers tend to drive three to seven times the number of miles as an individually owned vehicle, and they charge three to seven times as much,” said Levy. 

A number of states, cities and utility providers have unveiled a buffet of promotions and incentives to encourage the switch to EVs. Perhaps some of the greatest action in this area has happened at the local level.

Smart Columbus officials in Ohio have launched a series of programs to engage workers at some of the region’s top employers about the benefits of EVs. A local taxi company transitioned its fleet to mostly EVs, in part, with help from an incentive program to provide up to $3,000 per car in rebates. And another program worked with dealerships to encourage them to stock and promote electric cars.
“These are all things that we do. And it really is that full program that I think has created a market for EVs, which I think was the ultimate goal,” said Zach McGuire, manager of Smart Mobility Adoption in Columbus, in an interview with Government Technology in late summer.

What seems clear, said Levy, is that once a buyer takes home an electric vehicle — and comes to understand its abilities, range and the recharging landscape — they tend to have few regrets.

“One of the things we see the most often is when a person gets into an EV, they love it. There’s not a lot of what I will call, ‘EV recidivism,’” said Levy. “People who buy electric vehicles, they want their next car to be electric. They can’t imagine going back.”

Top EV Market Share Cities:

  1. San Jose, Calif.
  2. San Francisco
  3. San Diego
  4. Los Angeles
  5. Sacramento, Calif.
  6. Seattle
  7. Portland, Ore.
  8. Riverside, Calif.
  9. Washington, D.C.
  10. Boston
Source: International Council on Clean Transportation
Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.