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EV Options Have Increased but Public Awareness Not So Much

Consumers in the largest electric car market in the country still find it difficult to name an electric vehicle brand beyond Tesla. New data suggests that drivers have more options than ever but less awareness.

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Despite all of the efforts to increase the familiarity and appeal of electric cars, the nation’s largest car market knows little more about the vehicles than it did five years ago.

Research by the UC Davis Institute of Transportation Studies found that car-owning households in California are remarkedly uninformed about EVs, the selection of brands available and incentives offered at both the state and federal levels to help offset the cost of purchasing an electric car.

When asked, “can you name a battery-electric vehicle sold in the U.S.,” the research showed “very little change in the ability to name a vehicle, despite the increase in the number of possible correct names,” said Ken Kurani, a researcher at the UC Davis Institute of Transportation Studies.

“What we see is that over this time period there’s been really no change in the percentage of the population that can correctly name an electric vehicle. There’s been some slight shift of the people who can toward Tesla,” Kurani said in his presentation during a webinar Feb. 12, hosted by Forth, an EV education and advocacy organization in Portland, Ore.

“If you’re not Tesla, if you’re not Nissan… you really can’t be too excited about the name recall for your product,” he added. “There’s really just two cars, maybe three, in 2019 that people, even a small number of people can recall. And lets face it, it’s Tesla.”

The research studied car-owning households in California from 2014 to 2019, to understand how consumer engagement efforts around EVs have helped broaden their familiarity and acceptance. The state continues to lead the country in EV sales and market share, with nearly 700,000 EVs sold in the state since 2011, according to statistics compiled by Veloz, a Sacramento-based EV advocacy group.

Despite having some 40 EV models available in California, “there’s been very little change in the ability to name a vehicle,” said Kurani.

Survey findings related to charging infrastructure are not much more encouraging, with most drivers saying there’s not an adequate number of public charging locations. Even in the Bay Area the public does not think there is enough charging.

“If we think we’re going to build our way out of this problem, there’s 25 to 30 times as much charging, on a per-square-mile basis, in the San Francisco Bay area than in the San Joaquin Valley,” Kurani pointed out.

However, 2020 may mark the year when public attitudes start to shift. All you had to do was watch the Super Bowl several weeks ago, when car-makers bought some of the most expensive television advertising space to push electric vehicles.

“I believe the consumer conversation has really shifted,” said Lea Malloy, head of research and development and emerging technology at Cox Automotive Group. “The EV is here, and it’s no longer a question of are they coming, but when are they coming?

“I think within the industry, and from a consumer perspective, the buzz has really reached a crescendo about the battery-electric,” Malloy added, in her comments during the webinar. “It does come down to a little bit of the supply and demand conversation.”

Decarbonizing the transportation sector is largely viewed as an essential component for improving air quality and reducing climate-warming greenhouse gas emissions. Today, the transportation sector is responsible for 41 percent of the GHGs in California, according to a recent report by Next 10, a non-partisan think tank focusing on the economy, environment and quality of life.

A more wholesale switch to electrification in the transportation sector stands to increase the state’s GDP from $82 billion to $142 billion by 2030, along with creating more than 500,000 new jobs, according to the report “Clean Transportation: An Economic Assessment of More Inclusive Vehicle Electrification in California.”

“Transitioning to electric vehicles is not just an investment in mitigating climate risk. It’s an investment in the economy,” said F. Noel Perry, the founder of Next 10, in a statement.

Efforts are underway by Electrify America to raise awareness of electric vehicles among drivers who would not ordinarily consider an EV. The Virginia-based company plans to invest $2 billion in the U.S. over the next 10 years to incentivize the adoption of electric vehicles.

An ad campaign, which launched in July and ran through the end of December, played on the theme that “mainstream things that were kind of foreign objects to us at one time, but are [now] completely mainstream, which is what we’re saying electric cars are going to be,” said Misti Padgett-Murphey, marketing manager for Electrify America.

“The idea is to basically stimulate awareness and interest about this concept that technology seemed weird at first, whatever that technology was, and electric cars are normal now,” said Padgett-Murphey.

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.