The Electric Highway: Why California is Sputtering Along

The day Brian Feeney walked into a Palm Springs dealership to buy a new Nissan Leaf, he was fulfilling the dream of state policy-makers to entice Californians to break off their love affair with gas-guzzling cars. But the amount of meticulous research that went into Feeney’s purchase was identical to the amount of carbon emissions his all-electric Leaf would spew into the atmosphere: zero.

The previous week, he had gotten into an accident, needed a rental, asked for something fun to drive, and was issued an electric car. A few days behind the wheel convinced him to buy one. Now here he was, being handed the keys to a shiny new object—not to mention one that promised to make the planet better.

So, the salesman asked, how are you planning to get it home? Feeney blinked. His Pasadena house was more than 100 miles away—beyond the Leaf’s battery range.

In the end, his fun new car was delivered to his home hitched to the back of a tow truck.

The story is an apt metaphor for California’s similarly impulsive embrace of zero emission vehicles—and the logistical challenges of figuring out how to get from point of origin to ultimate destination. Like Feeney, the state knew little about the market for electric vehicles before mandating a widespread and expensive transportation reboot designed to dramatically cut tailpipe emissions. And, like Feeney’s foray, the state’s electric car adventure has gotten off to a shaky start.

Now, a half-dozen years into Gov. Jerry Brown’s futuristic vision of carbon-free transportation, California is encountering even more potholes along the electric highway—obstacles born from both practicalities and politics. Consumers, put off by high costs and concerned about limited range, just aren’t buying into the state’s ambitious aims. As a market share, hybrid electric and fully electric cars have been stuck at only 3 percent of new cars sold in the state. Undaunted, the state intends that by 2025, just nine years from now, zero-emission cars will make up 15 percent of California’s new car fleet—a five-fold increase.

Exactly how this will happen is anybody’s guess. The state is relying on the requirements it’s placed on carmakers to get us there. The industry’s response: We can make the cars, but we can’t make people buy them. And car buyers? At the moment most of them prefer bigger fuel-slurping cars—especially with gasoline relatively cheap—and they’re put off by the larger price tags and smaller driving range of electric cars.

The state of California has exercised its own policy-making power to help overcome these practical problems: issuing financial incentives for the purchase of low-emission cars, encouraging entrepreneurs and utilities to build out a network of convenient charging stations, and rewarding carmakers for filling the market. But even as agencies have set to work fulfilling those goals, political support from the Legislature has been erratic.

At this point, it’s not clear that the state will meet either the legal mandates or the goals it has set. While more electric cars are sold every day, a study conducted for the Natural Resources Defense Council estimates that the state will meet only half the goal, or 6 percent of all new vehicles emission-free by 2025, unless vital changes are made.

Via a 2012 Executive Order, Gov. Brown called for 1.5 million zero-emission vehicles in operation statewide by 2025. That number today: about 220,000.

The governor’s order also set a target that by 2050, “virtually all personal transportation in the state will be based on zero-emission vehicles.”

“We are way behind, we are really way behind,” said Michael Schneider, chief environmental officer at San Diego Gas & Electric. “We’ve all got to work to move that forward.