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California electric vehicle sales are up. But will we reach the 5 million goal by 2030?

EV charging stations
Electric vehicle sales are rising in California, according to the latest quarterly report from the California New Car Dealers Assn.
(Howard Lipin / San Diego Union-Tribune)

While overall sales for new cars in California dipped in the third quarter, the combined market share for electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids in the Golden State has continued to grow. But is the increase moving at a quick enough pace to reach the goal set by state policymakers for 5 million zero-carbon emission vehicles on California’s roads by 2030?

Overall registrations for light duty vehicles (cars, pickup trucks and SUVs) dropped 5.1% in California through the first nine months of the year compared to the first three quarters of 2018. But electric vehicles and plug-in hybrid sales increased to 7.9% in combined market share during that time frame.

Hybrids without a plug-in are not considered zero-emission vehicles, or ZEVs, and do not count toward the state’s target of 5 million but if their 5.5% of market share is added, the combined percentage of electric vehicles and all hybrids comes to 13.4% for the third quarter, an all-time high.

“These numbers pretty much track with what we’ve been seeing, and are a continuing sign that there’s a healthy ZEV market developing in California and that the state’s ZEV goals are achievable,” said Dave Clegern, public information officer for the California Air Resources Board, the state agency in charge of improving air quality.

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As of Oct. 7, there were 655,088 ZEVs in the state. To reach the 5 million mark, that figure would have to increase almost eightfold in less than 11 years.

The number of ZEVs in California rose 30% from October 2017 to October 2018 (from 377,480 to 491,000) and increased 33.4% between October 2018 and October 2019 (491,000 to 655,088).

“I think the jury is still out” on whether the target can be reached, said Brian Maas, president of the California New Car Dealers Assn., the group that released the quarterly numbers.

“You’ve got a lot of models now that have 200-mile range [between charges] and some are even higher than that,” Maas said. “I think for most consumers to make a ZEV their primary car, they have to feel confident they can get it charged wherever they need to.”

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There are about 21,000 charging stations statewide and the Air Resources Board has budgeted $1.087 billion in electric vehicle initiatives, with a large share going to building charging stations. The California Public Utilities Commission has set aside almost as much — $1.048 billion, according to a review conducted earlier this year by the San Diego Union-Tribune.

The Air Resources Board says the transportation sector accounts for the largest single source of greenhouse gas emissions in California at 41%. The figure is even higher in the city of San Diego — 55%.

In addition to improved range, another potential reason for the uptick in ZEV sales may be higher gasoline prices in California that cracked the $4 per gallon mark at the end of the third quarter.

The Tesla Model 3 has set the pace for ZEV sales. Elon Musk’s more affordable offering has accounted for nearly 50,000 registrations so far this year, making it the third-hottest selling vehicle in California. Only the Honda Civic and the Toyota Camry sold more units through September.

Overall vehicle sales are on a pace to finish the year at 1.91 million registrations, which will break a four-year streak in which sales in California topped the 2 million mark.

“I think a part of it is, a lot of people who had pent-up demand during the Great Recession went out and bought cars,” Maas said, but now demand has petered out.

In addition, the average price for a new car has reached $37,000. That’s roughly a 10% increase in the past three years, which may account for used-car sales going up.

Light trucks drove the increase in sales of used vehicles, 3.8% higher through September than at this time last year.

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For years, car sales outpaced those of pickup trucks and SUVs, especially in California. But consumer preferences for roomy vehicles that offer better fuel efficiency than in years past has led to a role reversal.

The decline in sales of new light trucks through September was negligible — off by 0.3%. But new-car registrations in California were down 10.8%.

Nationally, car sales were down 9.8% through September, but light truck sales were up 3.5%.

Nikolewski writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.


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