California’s Car Culture Is Becoming Electrified

Incentive programs are pushing automakers to bring more zero-emission cars to market, but other states lag far behind.
Electric cars sit charging in a parking garage. (Photo: Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)
Aug 27, 2016· 1 MIN READ
Taylor Hill is an associate editor at TakePart covering environment and wildlife.

Heading to the car dealership to purchase an environmentally responsible, zero-emission vehicle? That can be a tall task, depending on what state you live in.

A new study conducted by the Union of Concerned Scientists found that California is dominating the electric vehicle market, as more than half of all electric car sales are made in the Golden State.

One big reason for the large California market share is that dealerships keep electric vehicles on the lot. The report surveyed electric vehicle model offerings from all car manufacturers and looked for availability of those models around the country. Last year, 22 electric vehicle models were offered in California dealerships. No other state offered more than 14, and in many states, E.V.s are needles in the car lot haystack. Twenty-one states offered five or fewer models, according to the report.

“The key find here is that people can’t buy cars they can’t find,” said David Reichmuth, a vehicle engineer at UCS and the lead author of the study.

States are grappling with ways to curtail greenhouse gas emissions and meet increasing fuel economy standards set by the United States Environmental Protection Agency. While many states are focusing on meeting fuel economy standards, California is leading the way in the transition to electric vehicles.

“With its Zero Emission Vehicle Program, we expected California to be the leader in E.V. car sales, but it was surprising to see how the automakers and dealerships responded to that—by offering so many more models in that state compared to others,” Reichmuth said.

RELATED: Today’s Electric Cars Could Handle Nearly All of Our Driving

California is the only state with a zero-emission-vehicle mandate, which pushes automakers to sell an increasing number of electric, plug-in hybrid, and fuel-cell vehicles in the state. Gov. Jerry Brown hopes the program will result in at least 1.5 million emissions-free vehicles on the streets by 2025.

Some automakers have responded by only offering battery-powered versions of their cars in California, such as Chrysler’s Fiat 500.

“Their electric version is only sold in California and Oregon, but you can’t get it outside of those two states,” he said. “So it’s not a matter of whether or not people in New York or other states don’t want that electric car; it’s that Chrysler doesn’t offer it.”

But by 2018, nine states—Oregon, Vermont, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Maryland, Rhode Island, and Maine—will have adopted California’s emissions standards. That should bump up automakers’ electric car offerings in those states, Reichmuth said.

The study also pointed out which automakers were making headway in the electric vehicle market and which companies were falling behind.

BMW, General Motors, Nissan, and Tesla were noted as leaders, making multiple electric models available in numerous states.

Automakers labeled as “laggards” were Toyota, Fiat Chrysler, Hyundai-Kia, and Honda.