With nearly 1 of every 5 new cars sold in California last year being an electric vehicle (EV), the EV market is moving beyond early adopters. But there is still a way to go before EVs are an affordable and convenient choice for all California drivers. That’s why the state is increasingly focusing on making EV ownership attractive to low- to moderate-income (LMI) drivers.
As part of that effort, the Center for Sustainable Energy conducted focus groups of 31 LMI Californians of diverse demographics to better understand their thoughts about EVs. Focus group participants represented 10 areas of California that differed in income, density and disadvantaged community (DAC) status. Participants responded in either English or Spanish and comprised a variety of ethnicities, races, dwelling types, education levels and ages.
Here’s what we found:
1. LMI consumers share the same EV concerns as the general population
We expected to hear people describe issues unique to their income level or demographic identity, but our participants’ primary EV concerns were not specific to their demographic characteristics. For example, we expected apartment dwellers to be more concerned about where to charge, but charging opportunities were not discussed at any greater rate among this group.
Instead, we found the same concerns were persistent among all participants: the price of EVs, how far a charged EV can go and how long it takes to recharge.
2. EV cost is a concern
The cost of EVs is understandably a concern for LMI consumers (defined as households with incomes less than or equal to 400% of the federal poverty level, or $111,000 for a family of four). A resident of Riverside County said, “I would love an electric car. I would love it. And the reason I don’t have [one] is because they cost so much more than a regular gas car. That’s the only reason.”
The average price of a new EV has been dropping but is still closer to the luxury end of the market. New EVs remain out of reach for most LMI car buyers if they seek to spend no more than 15% of their income on transportation, which financial experts recommend.
To address these cost concerns, California recently increased the dollar amount of rebates LMI consumers receive through the Clean Vehicle Rebate Project for buying or leasing a new EV. The state is also expanding statewide the financing assistance offered through the Clean Cars 4 All program. And rebates funded by the state’s Low Carbon Fuel Standard program are available for pre-owned EVs through Southern California Edison and Pacific Gas & Electric.
3. “Range anxiety” persists
For our focus group participants, the range of an EV was a concern on par with the cost. A resident of Fresno County said, “[An EV] becomes more of a hindrance because you can't really go that far with the battery before you have to stop and then you have to stop for a while … The rebates don't overshadow those concerns on the range of the battery.”
EV battery range has been increasing, and most EVs on the market today can go at least 250 miles on a charge, much farther than 40 miles a day that is the average driven. But anxiety about how far a charge will go persists due to a limited number of EV charging stations.
To address this concern, the federal government is investing $7.5 billion in EV charging infrastructure across the U.S., especially along highways. In addition, California is investing $2.9 billion in EV charging. Its recent Golden State Priority Project reserved $30 million for DC fast chargers solely in disadvantaged and low-income communities, with a second phase of the project planned for later this year.
4. LMI consumers worry about the time it takes to charge
Focus group participants worried about not only where they would stop to charge on a road trip, but also how long it would take. One father from Shasta County asked, “Am I going to have to wait an hour or two hours to have a full charge when baby girl is crying because she wants to get out?”
Time may be a particularly relevant concern for people with low to moderate incomes who may work multiple jobs, have less money to delegate tasks and experience unpredictable schedules.
Charging at Level 2 chargers can take hours, but DC fast chargers, which are the focus of California’s and federal efforts to expand infrastructure, can take a car from 20% to 80% charged in about 20 minutes. Installing chargers where people already plan to spend time, like places of worship, libraries, shopping centers, workplaces, laundromats and restaurants, can help also save time, but requires a mental shift from gassing up and going.
5. LMI drivers want to learn about EVs online and IRL
Finally, LMI drivers in our focus groups shared how they would like to learn more about EVs: online (online research, YouTube videos and reviews of vehicles) and firsthand, in-real-life (IRL) experience (test drives in no-hassle environments, EV car sharing programs). A resident of San Joaquin County mentioned partnering with ride-sharing services to showcase EVs and said, “It's not an everyday thing where you go into a dealership, or it's not very comfortable. But [with] Uber and Lyft it's kind of like you're exposed to something you weren't exposed to before.”
Our focus group participants echo national surveys showing Americans have many questions and concerns about EVs. These can be addressed through incentives that reduce vehicle cost, infrastructure spending to expand publicly available fast chargers, and continued efforts to increase knowledge of EVs through online resources and experiential learning. By engaging consumers and addressing their concerns, we can help more people in low- to moderate-income households benefit from EV ownership.
Read more on CSE’s focus groups for California’s Clean Vehicle Rebate Project