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Gov. Brown's Biggest Climate Foe Isn't Trump. It's Car-Loving Californians

Model 3 sedans sit on display outside a Tesla showroom. For California to reach its ambitious climate change goals, every vehicle sold by 2040 in the state will have to be a zero-emissions vehicle.
David Zalubowski
Model 3 sedans sit on display outside a Tesla showroom. For California to reach its ambitious climate change goals, every vehicle sold by 2040 in the state will have to be a zero-emissions vehicle.

California is convening an international summit this week to push for global action on climate change. As the Trump administration has rolled back federal climate policies, California has partnered directly with other nations and cities.

On Monday, Gov. Jerry Brown set the stage by signing a new state goal for 100 percent clean energy by 2045.

But if California is going to reach its ambitious climate change targets, the state will have to tackle its toughest challenge yet: cars. Transportation is the state's top source of carbon emissions and those emissions are on the rise.

It will take a complete transformation. To produce enough emissions cuts, every new vehicle sold in California will have to be plug-in by 2040.

Today, electric and plug-in hybrid cars are only 6 percent of new vehicle sales in the state.

To get them on the roads, California is requiring automakers to sell zero-emission vehicles in the state. The goal is 5 million vehicles by 2030. Nine other states have similar policies.

Gov. Jerry Brown also unveiled $2.5 billion plan to increase charging stations and expand rebates.

But changing the minds of car-loving Californians is a much trickier problem.

Electric cars have made major inroads in the Bay Area and Los Angeles. In Palo Alto, where Teslas are common sight, plug-in cars were 29 percent of new vehicle sales in 2017.

"I'm getting green vehicle, an electric vehicle," says Pablo Chang-Castillo, picking up his brand-new, black Chevy Bolt at Concord Chevrolet. He says using electricity instead of gas will save him money on his long commute.

Still, the majority of car buyers have a different take.

"My wife just told me her car's too small," says Mark Bauhs, who is test driving mid-size SUVS. "So, I need a bigger car."

An electric car isn't on his shopping list.

"I haven't quite moved over to electric cars yet," he says. "It definitely has never crossed my mind for a family car."

"The main issue [is] that most of the Californians are not aware of the benefit and opportunity of buying plug-in electric cars," says Gil Tal, who directs the Plug-In Hybrid & Electric Vehicle Research Center at UC Davis.

While interest in electric cars is growing, surveys show that most people don't know much about them.

"It's the same as what I know about convertibles," says Tal. "They are out there. That's it. I know nothing more than that."

Tal says in California, electric cars are cleaner than gas cars, because the electricity comes from a growing amount of solar and wind power.

"If you buy an electric car today and you drive it for 10 years in California, your car will be cleaner every year," he says.

That might be an incentive for some buyers, but there's still a perception that electric cars aren't practical. Tal says that perception is no longer true.

Many electric cars go more than 200 miles on a charge, so most drivers only really need to charge them at home, not everywhere they go.

Newer models of electric cars are also more affordable and automakers plan to release new plug-in crossovers and SUVs. In California, a buyer can get $10,000 back in federal tax credits and state rebates.

But Tal says that doesn't necessarily inspire everyone to switch.

"It is ambitious because there is nothing really wrong with the cars we drive today," he says. "The electric car isn't so different that we will dump whatever we have and buy electric."

Car buyers usually have their minds made up long before they get to a dealership.

"A lot of the purchase process happens ahead of showing up," he says. "At the dealer is usually too late to shift someone to buy electric."

But chances are most people have never seen a television ad for an electric car from a major car company.

"This is a very difficult segment," says Steven Majoros, marketing director for Chevrolet Cars & Crossovers. "It's a difficult product proposition."

So far, Chevy hasn't run a national TV spot for the Chevy Bolt, only regional ads in markets like the Bay Area.

"Let's just be realistic," he says. "How big is the EV market? In the United States, right, it's about 1, 1 and a half percent of the market. So, we have to always balance market demand, market size, with how much we 'advertise.' "

That's a trend across automakers. According to one analysis, major car companies only spend a fraction on advertising electric cars compared with their best-selling models.

Volkswagen is running a public service announcement for electric cars, but that's part of its penance for their emissions cheating scandal.

Chevy is counting on word of mouth.

"We like to say I'd rather have 100 people drive a Bolt EV than have 10,000 people just hear about it," Majoros says. "So, we invested very heavily in experiential activities with drive events, auto shows."

Even then, electric cars face another hurdle: our car culture.

"The automobile is an emotional object," says Mimi Sheller, professor of sociology at Drexler University. She says just look at the messaging we get in car ads.

"There's a long history of associations with masculinity and speed and power," she says. "You could call it a kind of social capital."

Many ads for SUVs focus on families, highlighting safety, protectiveness and caring.

"I think we are influenced in many ways by all those cultural suggestions that are around us," Sheller says.

"We buy the car for very different reasons than what we use the car for," says Tal. "It's an extension of our personality, in a way."

Today, demand for trucks and SUVS is up in the U.S. So, Sheller says the switch to a new technology, from gas to electric, might take a disruption of some kind, like higher gas prices.

Copyright 2021 KQED. To see more, visit KQED.

Lauren Sommer covers climate change for NPR's Science Desk, from the scientists on the front lines of documenting the warming climate to the way those changes are reshaping communities and ecosystems around the world.
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