1 in 5 electric vehicle owners later switches back to gas: California study

April 26, 2021
A significant percentage of people who went electric for their vehicles switched back, often due to frustrations with charging. (AP Photo/Neha Mehrotra)

A significant percentage of people who went electric for their vehicles switched back, often due to frustrations with charging. (AP Photo/Neha Mehrotra)

One in five people who purchased an electric vehicle in California later abandoned the technology, largely because of charging-related hassles, according to a first-of-its kind study that suggests more work is necessary to bring electric vehicles to the mass market.

Using surveys of households that had purchased electric vehicles between 2012 and 2018, researchers found that 21% of plug-in hybrid electric vehicle owners and 17% of battery electric vehicle owners later discontinued ownership.

The paper, published in Nature Energy, is the first to examine how many electric vehicle buyers hold onto their cars and comes amid a high-profile push to encourage electric vehicle ownership. 

California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed an executive order in September that would ban the sale of all new gasoline-powered vehicles by 2035, and U.S. President Joe Biden in April proposed hundreds of billions of dollars in spending to encourage electric vehicle production and consumption. 

But in California, the center of the U.S. electric vehicle market, such cars made up just 5.3% of new passenger vehicle sales in 2020 and accounted for just 1.2% of all registered cars in the state as of October, Spectrum News reported

If the small percentage of Californians who have already purchased electric vehicles have qualms about the technology, that could spell trouble for wider adoption, according to study co-author Scott Hardman, a professional researcher at the Plug-in Hybrid & Electric Vehicle Research Center at the University of California, Davis. 

"These are the most enthusiastic people, and if these buyers are having issues with the vehicles, that points towards issues that we will face as we reach the mass market," Hardman told The Academic Times. "I think we can get to a tipping point, but not with the policies we're having today." 

Hardman estimates that, based on discontinuance rates, approximately 12,500 fewer electric vehicles were sold in California last year. If discontinuance rates persist, though, it would mean 200,000 fewer electric vehicle sales in 2030, he added, complicating the wider adoption sought by many policymakers.

Electric vehicles, which currently have ranges of up to 400 miles, require a network of charging stations if traveling away from home, beyond the range limit, or the vehicle owner doesn't have a way to charge at home. President Biden has proposed spending $15 billion to create 500,000 new charging stations in places such as apartment buildings and public parking lots. 

But the UC Davis researchers' work shows that access to high-quality private charging is essential when incentivizing electric vehicle owners to hold onto their vehicles. 

The researchers conducted annual surveys from 2015 to 2019 with about 1,700 California households that had purchased an electric vehicle between 2012 and 2018.

Respondents who had home access to "Level 2" charging stations, which charge cars faster than a 120-volt connection but can cost thousands to install, were 51.1% less likely to give up electric vehicle ownership, the researchers found. Access to public charging stations, by contrast, did not change the likelihood of respondents getting rid of their cars.

"There's a lot of discussion about public charging, but public charging is not a replacement for home charging," Hardman said. "I would want to see more emphasis on figuring out how we can get home charging access for as many households as possible."

"Public charging is needed," he added, "but it's more for long-distance trips."

Hardman and his co-author, fellow UC Davis electric vehicle researcher Gil Tal, also explored what traits were associated with continued electric vehicle ownership. California households that were more likely to purchase and keep electric vehicles owned more cars than average, lived in detached homes and identified as men.

Broken down by carmaker, Fiat owners were by far the most likely to give up their electric or hybrid-electric cars, with 36.9% discontinuing ownership during the study period. Fiat was followed by Toyota at 24.9%, Ford at 23.9% and BMW at 21.3%. Tesla owners were the least likely to give up on electric cars, with just 11% discontinuance. 

The difference between Tesla and other brands may be explained by socioeconomic factors, according to Hardman. 

"Tesla owners have more vehicles, on average, than Ford owners," he said. "Those buyers are higher income and they're more likely to live in a detached house." 

Hardman said he would like future research to focus on how to lure former electric vehicle owners back into the market, as well as examine the role of used electric vehicle sales. 

"We can tackle the issues of climate change, but only if we can convince people to adopt these technologies," he said. "There's an opportunity to really improve the policies that we have." 

The paper, "Understanding discontinuance among California's electric vehicle owners," published April 26 in Nature Energy, was authored by Scott Hardman and Gil Tal, University of California, Davis.

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