EV sales are up, but we still need fuel economy standards

New technologies and industry investments are making electric vehicles (EVs) more affordable and approachable, expanding consumer choice and driving record-breaking U.S. EV sales. However, the continued popularity of pickups and SUVs shows the importance of maintaining federal fuel economy standards to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

At the recent Washington Auto Show, I test drove the Toyota Prius Prime, the second-generation plug-in hybrid Prius model. The Prime features a larger battery range than its predecessor, is surprisingly roomy, and, once unplugged from the charging station, provides a similar driving experience as a gasoline-powered hybrid.

The Prime is the latest example of automakers developing vehicles that can compete both functionally and financially with traditionally-fueled vehicles.

In the all-electric vehicle market, consumers have had to choose between high costs or low battery.

  • Chevy has begun to change the equation with the low-cost, long-range all-electric Bolt, already released in California and Oregon, and slated for a national release within the next year.
  • Tesla, famous for its luxury vehicles, is preparing to manufacture the more affordable Model 3 that retains the company’s longer battery range.
  • Ford, Volkswagen, and many other major automakers are also developing more affordable EV models, both all-electric and plug-in hybrids, that will compete favorably with traditionally-fueled vehicles.
Figure 1: Range and Cost Comparison of All-Electric Vehicle Models


Consumers are responding to these new models and technologies. The reconfigured Prius Prime jumped from a dozen or so vehicles sold per month earlier in 2016 to more than 1,300 vehicles per month in when it was reintroduced in December and this past January, taking second place in the plug-in hybrid market. Of the five best-selling models since December (Chevy Bolt & Volt, Toyota Prius Prime, Tesla Model S & X), only Tesla’s Model S is not new or redesigned within the past 18 months.

2016 was the highest-selling year in the history of the U.S. EV market, with approximately 150,000 vehicles sold. December set a single-month EV sales record at more than 23,000 vehicles.

However, 2016 was also a record year for the U.S. auto market as a whole. Consequently, EV market share rose only slightly, from 0.67 percent in 2015 to 0.84 percent in 2016. (Some estimates can range higher.) In the same timeframe, light trucks (SUVs, vans, and pickup trucks) accounted for more than 60 percent of the U.S. vehicle market, and are expected to remain popular if oil prices stay low. Although EV purchases are increasing, there are at least 70 new light trucks purchased for each new electric vehicle. Plus, Americans are driving more miles than ever.

That’s why it’s important to maintain the federal fuel economy standards, which require automakers to improve the average emissions of the vehicles they sell over the next decade.

The fuel economy standards allow for consumers to choose SUVs and pickups under a separate “footprint,” but require that the greenhouse gas emissions of the larger footprint improve. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the California Air Resources Board have reviewed the standards and found them to be practical, achievable and affordable. With the transportation sector now the heaviest-polluting sector in the nation, these fuel economy standards are critical to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Manufacturers are making great strides to expand the EV consumer base beyond early adopters. Many reputable analysts, such as Bloomberg New Energy Finance and the International Energy Agency, expect that consumer EV adoption will rise rapidly in the coming decades, helping to deeply decarbonize the sector. In the meantime, federal fuel economy standards can help reduce greenhouse gas emissions from all vehicle model and fuel types.

Positive steps on the road to more EV charging

Last year, I spoke to a Slate reporter who asked why the Obama Administration had not invested more in electric vehicle (EV) charging infrastructure. Last night, the administration took steps to reduce transportation emissions by making charging easier and more affordable and by leading the way through a unified, national effort.

The administration announced several initiatives to promote EV adoption. Notably, $4.5 billion in funding has been designated to support guaranteed loans for the installation of new EV charging stations. The administration also plans to develop a guide for federal funding, financial, and technical assistance for EVs and EV charging infrastructure, as well as invest in research and partnerships that will expand EVs’ consumer appeal.

More funding

Range anxiety, or a simple lack of available charging options, continues to impede the growth of the EV market. The administration announced $4.5 billion in guaranteed loans through the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Loan Program Office to install EV charging stations. Expanding federal loans to include EV charging stations may help remove a major impediment to investing public charging by reducing the cost of capital.

A 2015 C2ES report recommended government loans in the short term to help stimulate the growth of public charging infrastructure and create a sustainable charging network. The report found that charging service providers face difficulties earning a return on investments for public charging projects, but could develop profitable business models with government financial support.

Federal standards

The administration is proposing to develop federal standards to assist with developing networks of DC fast charging stations, which can charge an EV in 30 minutes or less. The U.S. Departments of Energy and Transportation will produce a guide to federal funding programs, financing incentives, and technical assistance for EVs and charging stations. The intervention of the federal government may help create some more consistency between charging networks with varying standards and processes, and the guide may establish an authoritative and inclusive resource for all stakeholders to turn to for a better understanding of EVs.

The proposal leverages existing programs, such as the congressionally approved 2015 FAST Act designating travel corridors for alternative fueling stations, to help expand DC fast charging networks.

This figure illustrates the business challenge facing charging service providers.

This figure illustrates the business challenge facing charging service providers. Over the expected life of the charging equipment, the direct revenue for the provision of charging services is less than the cost of owning and operating the charging station.

Consumer appeal

The White House’s announcement also includes new funding for research to cut EV charging time down to 10 minutes, which would appeal to consumers used to fueling gasoline-powered cars. Consumers may find charging easier with the inclusion of new companies in DOE’s workplace charging program and utility commitments to deploying new EV infrastructure.

There may be some criticism about why the federal government is investing this funding in EVs, and not other clean transportation technologies such as natural gas or hydrogen. EVs currently hit the sweet spot of offering greater carbon reduction potential than natural gas vehicles, with the capacity to get even cleaner as the electric grid decarbonizes, while attracting greater support from automakers and consumers than hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. Twenty-six EV models were sold in the United States last month, with automakers pledging many more models in the coming year.

Now that the transportation sector has become the largest U.S. greenhouse gas-producing sector, these initiatives will help bring clean transportation to consumers by making EV adoption easier and more enjoyable.

Using data to evaluate the equity of EV policies

The state of New York has passed a budget that includes a new EV purchase incentive that will provide up to $2,000 for eligible buyers of an all-electric vehicle, a plug-in hybrid EV, or a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle. Meanwhile in Minnesota, legislators have been considering an EV purchase incentive.

The CEO of the Freedom Foundation of Minnesota criticized EV purchase incentives as “a reverse Robin Hood scheme,” without the green tights, that takes money from the many (taxpayers) and subsidizes the purchases of the few (elites who buy EVs). How accurate is the assertion that the wealthy benefit the most from purchase incentives?

A free EV data tool from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority can provide some insight. Developed with support from C2ES, EValuateNY gives users access to wide-ranging data sources from New York State’s EV market and allows easy comparisons of the factors that affect EV sales. You can find more about the tool in a previous blog post.

Our initial assessment, examining the period before the purchase incentive program has been implemented, shows that the EV market extends well beyond New York’s wealthiest counties.

Using the U.S. Census Bureau’s data on median household income by county, we established three income brackets to compare wealth between counties. Next, we broke down EV registrations by county and income bracket from the beginning of the EV market (2010) to the most recent data in EValuateNY (2014). The results show that counties with high median incomes account for slightly less than half the state’s total EV registrations.

Figure 1: Distribution of EVs by Income Bracket and County (2010-2014)

Therefore, EVs are not solely purchased in high-income counties, though households with high incomes are found in each county. However, EV registrations in three high-income counties (Suffolk, Nassau, and Westchester) account for more than 43 percent of the state’s total registrations, but only about 22 percent of the population. Clearly, these high-income counties have a higher rate of EV registrations. To dive deeper, we used EValuateNY to plot the rate of EV purchases per 1,000 vehicle registrations by county and income level, shown in Figure 2. Using a rate of EV purchases helps eliminate other factors that may affect the data, such as population or the rate of vehicle ownership. We also added the total number of EV registrations as the size of the bubble representing each county.

Figure 2: Household Income with Rate of EV Purchases and EV Registrations by Income Bracket and County (2010-2014)

This chart indicates that income may have a positive effect on the rate of EV registrations. High-income counties’ rate of EV purchases per 1,000 vehicles is higher than the range of low-income counties. With some notable exceptions, it’s also higher than the range of medium-income counties.

EValuateNY helped establish two findings[i] about the effect of income in New York State’s EV market:

1.      Counties with low and medium median incomes make up more than half of the market; and

2.      Residents of high-income counties may be more likely to purchase an EV than residents of low- and medium-income counties.

So, would New York’s forthcoming purchase incentive rob from the poor and give to the rich? This could not be entirely true, since more than half of all registered EVs are in low- and middle-income counties, and residents in these counties would arguably benefit more from $2,000 than residents from high-income communities. However, there may be some validity to the argument that on an individual basis, residents of high-income counties would benefit more from the purchase incentive because they may be more likely to buy an EV.

From a policy perspective, the purchase incentive is designed to promote EV deployment, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and invest in the state’s economy. The program is not designed with any specific social equity goals, but New York legislators could address any potential wealth disparity by instituting an income cap, as California recently did.

The value of purchase incentives in spurring the EV market should not be lost in the discussion of income, though. A recent report by the Stockholm Environment Institute highlights the need to reduce EV price premiums as a means of encouraging consumer adoption. The effect of purchase incentives on state EV markets has been demonstrated over the past year after Georgia eliminated its $5,000 all-electric vehicle tax credit, and EV sales fell sharply.

New York State’s purchase incentive is a helpful tool for putting more electric vehicles on the roads. All New Yorkers, not only the wealthy, benefit from the reduced greenhouse gas emissions from having EVs using some of the least carbon-intensive electricity in the nation.



[i] The strength of any correlation is difficult to establish, as EValuateNY’s user interfaces are designed to provide high-level insights. A regression analysis that provides confidence intervals may be required to better understand the significance of income on counties’ rate of EV uptake. Users may conduct advanced analyses by directly accessing EValuateNY’s databases.

 

Newest Tesla faces challenges, but sends hopeful signal for EV market

The Tesla Model 3 has surged onto electric vehicle (EV) scene, with more than 325,000 hopeful customers placing $1,000 deposits in less than a week.

The new all-electric vehicle has inspired phrases like “game-changer,” “simply extraordinary,” and “a tipping point.”

Since all-electric vehicles can significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the second largest emissions sector, greater interest in EVs could result in meaningful progress in addressing climate change. Looking past the initial wave of excitement, though, what does the Model 3 really mean to the EV market?

The Tesla Model 3 is a next-generation EV with a base price of $35,000 and an expected battery range of 215 miles. The vehicle is noteworthy because it reduces two primary barriers to EV adoption: price premium and range anxiety. Currently, all-electric vehicle models only allow prospective owners to reduce one of those barriers – you can choose between a relatively inexpensive vehicle with a limited range or an expensive luxury vehicle with a long range. The Chevy Bolt, which is slated for production in late 2016, will be the only vehicle with comparable range and performance when the Model 3 is released.

So how much of a game-changer is the Model 3?

Well, 325,000 deposits for a vehicle that will not begin production for another 18 months is surely an eye-opener, given that the number of deposits equals about two thirds of global EV sales for all of last year. Domestically, the leading all-electric model so far this year has been the Tesla Model S, accounting for just over 6,000 vehicles. So far this year, consumers have bought just over 15,000 all-electric vehicles that they could drive now, without an 18-month waiting period, which speaks volumes about the excitement for the Model 3.

Better EV decisions through data

February is dragging on for an extra day this year, delaying my favorite spring ritual: the opening day of baseball season. The extra day of eager contemplation has me combining a seasonal love of baseball with my year-round affection for electric vehicles (EVs). Bear with me here.

Baseball is an intensely data-driven sport. Whereas most sports are still using relatively simple stats like basketball’s “double double,” where a player reaches double digits in two statistical categories, baseball analysts predict teams’ expected wins by calculating Pythagorean scoring averages. Oakland Athletics General Manager Billy Beane fielded a winning team by using data to find players’ overlooked value, inspiring a famous book and cunningly selling Brad Pitt as a reasonable look-alike in the process.

Baseball shows the importance of data availability and statistical inferences in decision-making. Similarly, access to the best statistics may help transportation managers determine the best strategies to promote adoption of EVs, a market-ready transportation alternative that can reduce harmful emissions that contribute to climate change. The difficulty has been that data resources have been scattered, often difficult to locate and even more difficult to compile into a usable form. This is where a new data tool may be able to offer meaningful insights into EV markets.