California is a worldwide pioneer in the field of electromobility. Dr. Gil Tal, head of the Plug-in Hybrid and Electric Vehicle Research Center at the University of California Davis explains the reasons for California’s innovation in electric transportation. He calls for more political support for the efforts to develop sustainable mobility.
Hello Gil, electromobility is gradually becoming the new “normal” in the automotive industry ... That’s true, but it only applies to some of the potential market. Of the 8% percent of consumers who were interested and ready to consider purchasing an electric vehicle five years ago, most actually drive one now. But, unfortunately, the percentage of drivers who still do not consider making the change to an electric car is considerably higher.
Why is that? Initially, it’s predominantly the “early adopters” who are interested in a changeover. Early adopters can be characterised as being curious about new technology and having an interest in protecting the environment. They see electric vehicles as part of an overall concept. For them, it’s all about the future technology and being the first to try it. It’s common for early adopters of EVs to also invest in a photovoltaic solar system for their homes and produce their own electricity. Then when they purchase an electric car, they are now able to charge it using the solar energy their home created. However, this is still the minority.
What would convince the remainder? To bring about the breakthrough of a new technology, the technology must offer a significant advantage. Electric cars are currently still seen by many consumers to be not as convenient as petrol or diesel vehicles because of range limitations and charging needs. And without government support, like subsidies, rush-hour privileges, and special electric rates, not cheaper either.
In California, however, where you conduct research and teach at the University of California, Davis, the proportion of electromobility is already 8.5% percent. The development here in California is above all the result of political regulation. For example, we have a regional zero emission programme: If a carmaker wishes to sell a specific number of petrol or diesel vehicles, they must offset the impacts of that sale by acquiring “credits” for example, by selling electric cars. This has significantly improved the market for electric vehicles. Many car manufacturers such as the BMW Group, have used this concept to take a symbolic stand: early on, they were making their vision of what is actually possible with electromobility clear. In California, we support the ZEV program with incentives and large investments in infrastructure, but the key for success is a package of coordinated policies.
What role does the charging infrastructure play? We discovered during a long-term study on the MINI-E that public charging stations are not a significant criterion for owners of an electric car. Most of them usually travel short distances and recharge their car once a day at home in the garage. But it does, of course, contribute considerably to a change in mobility for the mainstream market if a good charging infrastructure is guaranteed. California has already made massive investments in the development of the public charging network so that electric car owners are now also able to drive to and around more regions without worrying about running out of charge. However, I think, and our research shows that many buyers think, that there’s a problem despite all of these measures: when you enter a car showroom in California, from the ten vehicle models you usually find only one EV. What I’m trying to say is that electromobility could be even more popular if car dealers had more electric models at their disposal.
A chicken-and-egg problem? It’s the same all over the world. If electric cars were more successful, more of them would be produced. But because this is not the case and prices are still high, electromobility cannot become the new “normal”.
What could this support look like? I’ll give you an example: In California, we have the HOV or “carpool lane”, a high occupancy lane on highways that normally can only be used if a car has a sufficient number of passengers. However, as an incentive to purchase an electric vehicles, electric cars enjoy a special status and are allowed to drive on these lanes, no matter how many people are in the car. California has also invested around four billion US dollars in incentives and infrastructure programs. Another type of policy focus on information and education, this includes Veloz, a politically initiated merger of leading electromobility companies, in which the BMW Group is also a party. On this platform, news can be posted, campaigns are hosted, and webinars are offered. Thanks to measures like this, political powers can create a situation where the advantages of electromobility are multiplied so we can finally get the ball rolling.