Capitol Alert

What would get you to buy an electric car? California is working on it

What fuel you use can impact both the environment and your pocketbook

Considering an electric vehicle? Or just want to learn more about them? This short video describes how electric vehicles and different types of plug-in hybrid electric vehicles work. Learn where to find information on a vehicle's driving range, ho
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Considering an electric vehicle? Or just want to learn more about them? This short video describes how electric vehicles and different types of plug-in hybrid electric vehicles work. Learn where to find information on a vehicle's driving range, ho

Amid the cows and corn dogs, visitors to the California State Fair this month will also have the chance to try out an electric car.

For three days, the California Plug-In Electric Vehicle Collaborative plans to bring a test course and as many as a dozen models to the fairground, including the new Chrysler Pacifica, the first plug-in minivan.

Scores of these ride-and-drive events, from Fleet Week in San Francisco to the apple festival in Tehachapi, have put more than 4,000 Californians behind the wheel of an electric car over the past two-and-a-half years, according to the group, helping to propel interest in the nascent market.

“Most people don’t ever buy a car without driving it, touching it, feeling it, asking questions of people who are knowledgeable,” said Gennet Paauwe, a spokeswoman for the collaborative of automakers, utilities, environmental organizations and government agencies that promotes electric vehicle adoption. “And with a new technology that changes the fuel structure, people generally have a lot of questions.”

Five years ago, Gov. Jerry Brown committed California to putting 1.5 million “zero-emission vehicles” on the road by 2025 – an ambitious goal that regulators reaffirmed in March during a review of clean car standards. The state has made modest progress: While ahead of early benchmarks, only about 300,000 have been sold so far.

With accelerating sales mandates taking effect this year, California officials, automobile manufacturers and consumer groups agree more must be done to address customers’ concerns about going electric.

They are working now to expand charging infrastructure around the state and bolster rebates that lower the price of new cars by thousands of dollars. Perhaps most importantly, they are set to launch a renewed campaign to let Californians know the option even exists.

It’s just important for people to know that the cars are here and nice to drive and not a science experiment.

Shannon Baker-Branstetter, energy policy counsel for Consumers Union

“It’s going to be challenging to get to the 2025 numbers, but we do feel the industry has a path to make that happen,” said Joshua Cunningham, who oversees zero-emission vehicle regulations as chair of the California Air Resources Board’s Advanced Clean Cars branch. “They are going to have to step up in order to get the sales.”

In January 2012, the Air Resources Board approved its Advanced Clean Cars program, targeting passenger vehicles as a dominant source of both air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. Among other provisions, it requires automobile manufacturers to produce an increasing number of zero-emission vehicles – battery electric and hydrogen fuel cell, along with transitional plug-in hybrids – reaching about 15 percent of new car sales by 2025.

Auto companies can reach the targets with the help of credits for exceeding zero-emission vehicle standards. Those that fall short face monetary penalties.

Nine other states, primarily in the Northeast, have since since committed to the regulations. But they linger far behind California, which accounts for about half of all electric vehicles sold in the U.S. In the first quarter of 2017, nearly 5 percent of new car sales in California were zero-emission, compared to 1.1 percent nationwide.

So if anyone can prove there’s a viable commercial future for electric cars, it may be up to the Golden State. Enthusiasts worry whether California is progressing quickly enough to get there.

“Some people are simply just afraid of change,” Paauwe said.

Shannon Baker-Branstetter, energy policy counsel for Consumers Union, the advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, said they generally find “very high owner satisfaction” with electric vehicles, but customers have low awareness and widespread misconceptions about the cars.

1.5 million Number of zero-emission vehicles that Gov. Jerry Brown wants on California roads by 2025

Drivers fret about not being able to reach their destination or find a charging station, though most models now have a battery range of more than 80 miles. While sticker prices are higher than their gasoline-powered counterparts, electric vehicles can be cheaper in the long run because of less required maintenance and the lower cost of electricity compared to filling up at the pump.

The auto industry has not done enough to promote its electric offerings, Baker-Branstetter added. Manufacturers and dealers make more money off large vehicles like trucks and SUVs, which are in demand as gas prices fall, than the small hatchbacks and sedans that dominate the zero-emission sector.

“I see a lot of vehicle ads and very few for electric vehicles. And since it’s a new technology, it needs advertising to get the word out there,” she said. “It’s just important for people to know that the cars are here and nice to drive and not a science experiment.”

The industry recognizes the importance of the clean cars program to California’s environmental goals and remains focused on building the electric market, according to Charlie Haake, assistant general counsel for the Association of Global Automakers, which represents a dozen automobile manufacturers including Toyota, Hyundai and Nissan. But he added that these companies need the state’s assistance to reach their zero-emission vehicle targets by 2025.

“Convincing someone to not buy a truck and instead buy an electric vehicle, that’s an entirely different kind of marketing,” Haake said. “There’s no question that the consumer incentives play a role in spurring demand.”

Global Automakers made it a priority this session to extend carpool lane access for electric cars, which expires in 2019. A bill by Assemblyman Richard Bloom, D-Santa Monica, would keep the sticker program through 2025.

“Time is money, they say, and if you save an hour off your commute each day by using the HOV lane, then that’s very valuable,” Haake said.

Electric vehicles accounted for nearly 5 percent of new car sales in California in the first quarter of 2017. That’s about five times the market penetration nationwide.

Another bill recently introduced by Assemblyman Phil Ting, D-San Francisco, proposes setting aside $3 billion for zero-emission vehicle rebates through 2030. The current system, funded annually by sources like cap-and-trade revenue, usually runs out of money before the year is up, leaving buyers on a waiting list. Based on an incentive structure that California uses for solar panels, Ting’s plan would make rebates continuously available, but ramp down their value as the state reaches certain levels of electric car purchases.

Other legislation working its way through the Capitol aims to make the market more accessible to low-income Californians. Measures would establish rebates for used zero-emission vehicles and augment a program that helps drivers replace their high-polluting old cars with cleaner new ones.

Last year’s $14.7 billion settlement by Volkswagen for cheating air pollution tests will also bring about $800 million to California over the next decade to promote electric car usage.

Cunningham said the money will support a multimedia awareness campaign by the Air Resources Board and the construction of new public charging stations, of which there already more than 10,000 in California, particularly at workplaces and along corridors where drivers travel long distances. At least $44 million has been set aside to make Sacramento the state’s first “Green City,” with an electric vehicle-sharing program for those who cannot afford to buy their own.

All of the investments, and the arrival of new models on the market, brought some encouraging news to zero-emission vehicle proponents in early 2017: Sales for the first three months were up 80 percent over the same period last year.

Alexei Koseff: 916-321-5236, @akoseff

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