Although state and federal policymakers are laying the groundwork for an electric car future, progress has been slower than anticipated.
During his 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama announced a goal of putting 1 million advanced technology vehicles—plug-in hybrid electric or electric vehicles, or EV—on the road by 2015. In 2011, President Obama reiterated this goal and launched several initiatives designed to drive consumer demand for next-generation vehicles and to spur new research and development. And in 2012, he announced another initiative, the EV-Everywhere Grand Challenge, which created a collaboration of engineers, scientists, and industry to develop by 2022 EV models that are as affordable as 2012 gasoline-powered cars.
In setting these ambitious goals, the president explained that his motivations were to reduce America’s dependence on foreign oil and to cut its overall oil consumption. This would allow the nation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector.
While most people acknowledge that the United States will fall short of achieving President Obama’s original goal of 1 million vehicles, this setback does not mean that the goal is not worthy. As a Department of Energy official explained in 2013, “Whether we meet that goal in 2015 or 2016, that’s less important than that we’re on the right path to get many millions of these vehicles on the road.”
The United States is heading in the right direction. The automobile industry has managed to put approximately 340,000 electric vehicles on the road since December 2010, and sales numbers are still growing. The average range per charge for EVs is 40 to 100 miles, and Tesla’s electric model can travel 200 miles or more before it needs to be recharged. There are also 29 plug-in electric or plug-in hybrid electric models available, many priced around $27,000 after factoring in the federal tax credit of up to $7,500. The upward trajectory of EV sales suggests that the 1 million target will eventually be reached; every car sold and charging station installed brings the country one step closer.
The harsh reality of U.S. policy and politics, however, is that ambitious goals set by those in power sometimes take longer than expected to achieve. In setting his goal, President Obama confronted a transportation system in which the gasoline-powered internal combustion engine is firmly entrenched. As of 2014, there were 253 million cars and trucks on U.S. roads; transforming the transportation infrastructure from one fueled by gasoline to one powered by electricity and other alternatives is obviously a heavy lift.
Barriers to electric vehicle use
There are other significant barriers to widespread adoption of EV technology. Customers experience range anxiety, for example, meaning they feel uncomfortable with the limited distance an EV can drive on one trip. While range anxiety could be mitigated by battery storage improvements and charging infrastructure expansion, customers are also often put off by the upfront cost. Even with tax incentives for vehicle purchases, the current cost of the lithium ion batteries that EVs use is relatively high. Over the lifetime of a car, many households find them less expensive to own than gasoline-powered vehicles due to the low cost of electricity versus gasoline and lower maintenance costs. Car dealers and consumers, however, often lack familiarity with EVs and have little knowledge of their operation and maintenance.
Addressing these concerns will require a combination of policy changes, incentives, and public education. Fortunately, policy and technology are in place—with continuous advancement—to ensure effective change. This transformation will not happen overnight; it can take time to influence consumer behavior. Seat belt use in passenger vehicles is a prime example. The three-point, cross-body seat belt was introduced to vehicles in 1959, but consumers did not use it frequently. To increase use, the government had to act.
The effort to increase seat belt use
In 1997, President Bill Clinton announced his goal to increase seat belt use. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Buckle Up, America! initiative set the goal of increasing national seat belt use to 85 percent by 2000 and 90 percent by 2005, up from 68 percent in 1996. The safety implications of seat belt use are clear and statistically sound: It saves lives.
While Buckle Up, America! didn’t achieve its 90 percent target by 2005, there was still significant progress in increasing seat belt use across the country. In 1997, just 13 states had primary offense seat belt laws; by 2014, that number had grown to 33 states and the District of Columbia. These seat belt laws and public education campaigns helped achieve an 87 percent use rate in 2014.
To put more electric vehicles on the road, the federal and state governments need to do more than change the minds of consumers. They also need to support infrastructure development for electric vehicles and invest in the development of necessary technology.
What steps are being taken?
The Department of Energy recently partnered with the Edison Electric Institute to accelerate EV technology and infrastructure deployment. The partnership taps into private industry experience and knowledge of the EV market and extends across multiple governmental bodies, including the White House, the Council on Environmental Quality, the General Services Administration, and the Department of Transportation. The partnership will address barriers to EV development and work toward the EV Everywhere Grand Challenge initiative.
States have also enacted policies to increase the number of electric vehicles on the road, and other states can adopt best practices as these efforts continue. Recent observations of state programs suggest that states tend to see higher rates of EV purchases when they offer a variety of EV incentives. Some states—including Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Utah, Maryland, and Minnesota—offer tax credits or rebates to consumers who purchase plug-in infrastructure or EVs. Connecticut, Maryland, Vermont, and Colorado, meanwhile, encourage organizations and businesses to purchase EVs, with incentive programs for businesses and municipalities. Other states—including Washington and Oregon—have directly installed charging stations along highways. Massachusetts is supporting research and development programs and piloting vehicle-to-grid technology in school buses; such technology allows electric school buses to store energy and provide back-up power during an outage.
To meet and exceed the goal of putting 1 million next-generation vehicles on the road, state and federal policymakers need to do more across state boundaries. The nation is far from achieving an EV adoption rate close to that of seat belt use, but policymakers must continue to work toward ambitious goals, even if, at first, success appears elusive.
Myriam Alexander-Kearns is the Research Associate for the Energy Policy team at the Center for American Progress.