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How far behind is California on electric cars?

Potential buyers check out the Tesla model S at a showroom in Santa Monica last year. A new study says California is falling far behind its goal for electric vehicle sales.
Potential buyers check out the Tesla model S at a showroom in Santa Monica last year. A new study says California is falling far behind its goal for electric vehicle sales. Associated Press

California’s push for zero-emission vehicles is going agonizingly slowly – sort of like getting stuck behind those Prius drivers who refuse to step on the gas so they can stay in glide mode.

A new study is raising further doubts about whether the state will make its goal of 1.5 million electric or hydrogen-powered vehicles by 2025.

About 71,000 zero-emission vehicles, which don’t emit carbon and contribute to climate change, are being sold each year in the state, but annual sales need to be about 175,000 to reach the goal, according to the California Center for Jobs and the Economy.

A big problem is that Californians are buying ZEVs in place of hybrids, not instead of gas-guzzling SUVs. In the third quarter of 2016, sales of plug-in and battery electric vehicles rose by nearly 5,600 compared to the third quarter of 2015, the study says. But sales of hybrids, which run on gasoline and electricity, dropped by 7,200.

Over that period, the market share for ZEVs grew from 2.9 percent to 3.9 percent (the goal is 15.5 percent by 2025), but the slice for hybrids shrank from 6.4 percent to 5 percent, according to the center’s analysis of figures from the California New Car Dealers Association.

It’s easy to see why Californians aren’t crowding dealerships to buy zero-emission vehicles. They’re generally more expensive, even with government subsidies. There isn’t a seamless network of charging stations, especially outside major cities. And gasoline prices are relatively low, so there’s less incentive to buy electric cars.

Then there’s the dispute over how to actually count toward the goal. Automakers can buy some credits from ZEV makers, especially Tesla. Environmental groups oppose the credit system, saying it won’t create a zero-emission car industry.

The jobs center, the research arm of the California Business Roundtable, a group of CEOs, says the state should also ease employment and other regulations for the industry to expand.

In any case, even if California reaches the 1.5 million goal, that would account for less than 5 percent of all vehicles on the road. But we have to start somewhere. More fuel-efficient cars and higher fuel standards for all vehicles will also make a dent in carbon pollution.

So would more people getting out of cars entirely – no matter how they’re fueled – and using other ways to get around, or living closer to their jobs. That kind of lifestyle change, however, is far more difficult than persuading more people to buy electric cars.

By the numbers

New registrations of electric vehicles (including plug-in hybrids) and hybrids in California:

Electric

Hybrid

2012

20,093

94,878

2013

42,545

116,912

2014

59,485

115,544

2015

62,217

118,562

2016*

52,891

73,679

*Through third quarter

Source: California New Car Dealers Association

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