California is the largest electric-vehicle market in the United States, accounting for approximately half of the nearly 800,000 EVs on the road nationwide. But, according to surveys conducted by researchers at the University of California, Davis, the rapid growth in the number of EVs and charging stations in the state hasn’t improved consumers’ awareness of plug-in cars.

Ken Kurani and Scott Hardman, both affiliated with the Institute of Transportation Studies at UC Davis (ITS-Davis), conducted five surveys of car-owning California households from June 2014 to June 2017 to assess consumers’ awareness of plug-in electric vehicles (PEVs).

Kurani and Hardman are blunt about the implications of the survey results. “There are no paths to meet the PEV commitments and promises being made by automakers and politicians unless consumers are engaged in the transition to electric drive,” they state in a recent blog post.

The blog post continues: “The excitement among policymakers, automakers, and advocates as more PEV models enter the market place, more charging is installed, and more PEVs are sold each successive year is utterly lost on the vast majority of the car-buying public -- even in California.”

“Californians are not deciding they don’t want PEVs. Rather, they remain to a great extent unaware of PEVs and anything about them,” they concluded.

“The main takeaway was just how little movement there had been on any of our measures of some basic awareness and engagement with a transition to electric drive vehicles from 2014 to 2017,” Kurani, associate researcher at ITS-Davis, told Greentech Media in an interview. “Which is a lesson in just how big that market is and how pervasive an effort it will take to start to move it.”

Consumer EV awareness lagging, despite more electric vehicles on the road

According to the California Governor’s Office, the number of zero-emission vehicles (ZEV) in the state -- a designation encompassing battery electric vehicles, plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, and fuel cell electric vehicles -- has increased from 25,000 in 2012 to more than 350,000 by the end of 2017. ZEVs now make up about 5 percent of new car sales in California.

If Gov. Jerry Brown’s vision succeeds, many more of these low-carbon vehicles are on the way. On January 26, Brown signed an executive order lifting the state’s ZEV target from 1.5 million vehicles in 2025 to 5 million vehicles by 2030. Brown also proposed spending $2.5 billion to install 250,000 vehicle charging stations and 200 hydrogen fueling stations across California by 2025.

But, thus far, the growing number of PEVs on the road hasn’t been noticed by most California drivers. According to Kurani and Hardman’s surveys, the percent of car-owning households that had considered purchasing an EV was no higher in 2017 than in 2014. In each case, around 5 percent of respondents already owned an EV or stated they had actively shopped for one.

Respondents didn’t notice additional charging stations either. Non-residential EV chargers jumped from 5,700 in August 2014 to more than 11,500 by August 2017, according to the California Energy Commission. Nevertheless, consumers’ awareness of charging stations barely budged over the three years.

Despite a near doubling in the number of EV models on the road in California between 2014 and 2017, fewer survey respondents were able to name an EV for sale in 2017 than in 2014. And awareness of state and federal EV incentives was no higher in 2017 than three years before.

Actions to move the needle on awareness

What might begin to move the needle on consumer awareness in and outside California? In their blog post, Kurani and Hardman sketched out some suggestions:

  • Market the electric-drive transition: Social marketing to promote the need for and value of a transition to electric drive automobiles
  • Market electric-drive vehicles and supporting services: Traditional marketing by automakers, electricity providers, and charging infrastructure suppliers of their products and services
  • Create connections: Social media activities connecting people of similar motivations to own and drive PEVs
  • Create real PEV experience: Ride-and-drive events and the use of PEVs in shared mobility and vehicle rental applications
  • Create virtual PEV experience: Enhanced and customized information and virtual PEV experiences through websites and mobile apps
  • Engage the whole sales chain: Automobile dealer education and motivation programs
  • Measure to manage: Ongoing tracking of the impact of these activities on consumers and PEV sales

One potential awareness-raising model is the brick-and-mortar “Electric Showcase” operated by the electric mobility nonprofit Forth, in downtown Portland, Oregon, where consumers can see and inquire about multiple EV models and charging stations and also schedule test drives. In the interview with GTM, Kurani said such a showcase “is essential and needs to be there.” But, he added, “I’m trying to find a way to drive people into that electric showcase,” beyond the 5 percent of households paying attention to EVs.

Kurani also urged EV advocates to tap the affiliations consumers already hold to raise awareness. Suppose, he suggested, the REI store in Sacramento held a class on the links between climate change and the threat to the snowpack in the Sierra Nevada and presented zero-emission electric vehicles as one solution. REI could then organize a follow-up EV ride-and-drive event for members hosted by Sacramento’s municipal utility or regional air quality management district.

Any science- or environment-focused group -- think the Monterey Bay Aquarium or Sierra Club -- could host similar events for their members. “This way, you are attaching the case for an EV to the other values people hold,” said Kurani.

Kurani also stressed the need to find a way to enlist automakers and auto dealerships in selling what he called the “big idea,” which is that we're all headed toward electric-drive vehicles. But he conceded that automakers “are still largely companies founded on internal combustion and will be for some time.”

As for auto dealerships, Kurani noted salespeople’s lack of engagement with and knowledge of EVs, as well as a reticence to talk about providing information on incentives they don’t control. (GTM recently reported on the litany of ways the sales experience is failing would-be EV buyers.)

In the end, he said, “You have to show dealerships they’re going to make money on this.”