IE 11 Not Supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

Electric Vehicles: You Can't Plan for Transportation’s Future by Looking Backward

Two local government experts discuss the progress of electric vehicle adoption in California — and the future of transportation.

California state government leaders have set a goal of 1.5 million zero emission vehicles (ZEVs) on the road by 2025, the vast majority of which will be fueled by electricity. By pushing for adoption through incentives and regulations, about half of all electric vehicles (EVs) sold in the U.S. are in California.

In a recent interview, two local government experts — Joseph Oldham, director of CALSTART's San Joaquin Valley Clean Transportation Center, and Kate Meis, executive director of California’s nonprofit Local Government Commission — shared more factors influencing progress toward the target, how communities are involved in the effort and the potential impact of new technologies, including autonomous vehicles, on the broader transportation network and electricity grid.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Would you provide some background about electric vehicle adoption from your experience and perspective?

Oldham: Once people figured out how they can fit them into their daily lives, electric vehicles are being purchased fairly broadly across the upper-middle income, upper-income market demographic.

Here in the San Joaquin Valley, EVs are often leased as secondary vehicles or commute vehicles — people have figured that they are amazing as commute vehicles. They can drive all over the local area and don't have to worry about buying gasoline.

The majority of the charging that's done here is at home. The public-access charging here has not really been a deterrent to getting these EVs out there. 

So there's this kind of realization that this thing is very, very convenient and works for me. Now that we're starting to begin to see deployment of what I call extremely long-range EVs, like the [Chevrolet] Bolt EV and maybe when the Tesla Model 3 is available, that's going to be a game changer here, because now these cars will get 200 or something-odd miles on a charge. People will start to venture forth with these things, like the Tesla owners have already. We're deploying public-access charging infrastructure, fast-charging infrastructure, as well as level two along key corridors so that people will start being less apprehensive about taking these cars out of town and moving them around the valley. 

This leads to a deeper challenge — how do you get past this first level of early adopters to get to the higher percentage of the marketplace that's more difficult to reach?

Meis: I want to jump on that point. I think part of the question that we need to be asking here is not just are we meeting the target for electric vehicles, the 1.5 million. It's also which vehicles are we replacing? 

If we are replacing fairly clean cars with electric vehicles, we're not getting as much of a benefit as we would through programs that can help low-income residents that have older cars replace those cars. And that's where I think some of the programs we're seeing in California funded by our Cap-and-Trade program, including the enhanced Fleet Modernization Program and Plus-Up program in the San Joaquin Valley, [are beneficial]. So I think that's really promising and sits in alignment with this idea that we need systems thinking.

Also, on this systems-thinking piece, clearly this is going to have a huge impact on our grid. We also need to be thinking about renewable energy. We're seeing that most charging is going to be taking place at home, so how do we pair this with programs that can provide energy efficiency first in the home, and then put renewable-energy solar panels on the home and storage as well. How do we put all these pieces in the system?

How do you see other new technologies impacting the system?

Meis: We need to be thinking about autonomous vehicles and the change that they will bring. We're still planning for electric vehicles with the assumption that these are going to be individually owned vehicles and we'll have similar driving patterns as we've had in the past. I don't think that's a safe assumption. For me, the really interesting question is what does charging look like when you have autonomous vehicles en masse and the potential for a lot of those to operate as micro-transit or car sharing.

In the future, I don't see as many of us individually owning cars. Cars will function as on-demand pick-up or on-demand micro-transit where you're picked up by an autonomous electric vehicle and dropped off. In a scenario like that, if it's a public or private fleet, charging doesn't become an issue anymore because you plan the trips through an algorithm. You know exactly how long a person's trip is. You only take them there with that car if they still have that charge. You drop them off, and then that car may be out of commission for a little while while it gets charged, but that takes the range anxiety away from the person, and it becomes just a math equation through the algorithms of the public and private fleet.

So I think that's really the interesting shift that we need to be thinking about because we're not planning for the future of transportation. We can't plan for the future of transportation looking back, because things are changing so rapidly.

Under this scenario how does a city official plan?

Meis: I've been thinking a lot about this because we have two very different versions of how this could play out, and a lot of people are talking about them as the dystopian version or the utopian version related to sustainability. So you could either have this micro-transit, shared-use type future or you could make it a lot more convenient for people to live further away from where they work and have longer commute or ride distances because of the convenience of not having to physically drive.

Aligned with that, I think local government should be planning around ways to nudge shared use. Coordinating with transit is a big one and we're seeing cities already partnering with Uber and Lyft to provide first-mile/last-mile incentives. I think this future works great if you envision transit as being the spine of the system and then you have these micro-transit servers, the autonomous electric vehicles that are picking people up and connecting them with transit. So it's to the extent that we establish those partnerships early on. That's going to be really critical. 

Oldham: All of Kate's thoughts are exactly on point. I would just add that part of that infrastructure investment that cities need to be thinking about is at least laying in the conduits and preparing for who knows what the charging technology might look like in the future? We're working on a massive project here in Fresno to look at how do you change existing infrastructure to an advanced energy community.

The other consideration is the fact that battery energy storage technology is just moving exponentially in terms of its capacity. Right now we're at about 250 watt-hours per kilogram in terms of energy storage in battery technology. NASA is estimating that within the next five or seven years, that will increase to 500 watt-hours per kilogram. That's a doubling of the energy-storage capability in batteries. 

All of this will be a game changer, and it's not like this is 10 or 15 years out. No, no, no. This is five or six years out. This is within our window and it's just going to be amazing to see how this all plays out.