Electric vehicle sales are on the rise in America’s largest state automobile market.

New EV registrations in California grew to a 6.2 percent share of the total market in the first half of 2018, up from 4.8 percent in 2017 and 3.6 percent in 2016.

Registration figures, published this month by the California New Car Dealers Association, represent both pure-electric vehicles and plug-in hybrid vehicles (PHEVs) combined. Sales of the two types of EVs were neck and neck in 2014, but all-electric cars have pulled ahead in more recent years.  

Pure EVs claimed 3.3 percent of market share through June of this year, while PHEVs claimed 2.9 percent.

New battery electric vehicle sales in California are now approaching sales of traditional hybrid vehicles, which have been on the market for much longer and benefit from more consumer awareness. But while that’s a positive development in the trend toward increased vehicle electrification, it may also point to an underlying market problem. 

Conventional hybrids claimed 4 percent of market share in the first half of 2018, which marks a decline from previous years. Last year, new hybrid vehicle registrations in California represented 4.6 percent of market share. In 2014, hybrids claimed 6.3 percent of market share.

So as plug-in car sales have increased, hybrid sales have fallen. That raises a big question for market-watchers: Are EVs creating new demand or just cannibalizing sales of hybrids?

The answer: A “bit of both,” as Colin McKerracher, head of advanced transport at Bloomberg New Energy Finance, tweeted. Overall clean car market share is growing in California, but it’s growing slowly as “PHEVs are eating regular hybrids,” he said. 

According to John Boesel, president and CEO of Calstart, a member-supported organization working to expand the clean transportation industry, there is a shared consumer base for plug-in vehicles and conventional hybrid cars, and one clear way to change that. 

“Given the limited number of models available today, there is going to be some cannibalization of the hybrid market for plug-ins,” he said. “I think as we start to see plug-in vehicle technology go into other models, and then I think we’ll start to see the market expand a bit more.” 

It’s often said that more vehicle models will boost EV sales, and historically that has proven to be true. The key going forward, said Boesel, is that new EV models need to align with broader automotive industry trends if they’re going to break out of the early-adopter population. Specifically, there need to be more electric trucks, crossovers and SUVs.

“I think that is really critical,” he said. “If you look at new car sales today, sedans are about 30 percent. [...] There’s really been a shift over the last four to five years toward pickup trucks and SUVs. So I think the key thing is that we’ve got to start seeing plug-in options in that 70 percent segment of the market.” 

According to the California New Car Dealers Association, which publishes data gathered by IHS Markit, new light truck sales surpassed new car sales in the state last year. This year, that gap widened — despite high gas prices. 

Luckily, larger EV models are coming to market from a wide range of brands, including Ford, BMW, Hyundai, Volkswagen and Geely. 

Electric truck and SUV sales will likely take off first in the high-end market, where consumers can absorb the higher prices. Continued cost declines will eventually make the technology accessible to a wider range of buyers.

“I’m really impressed with a firm like Volvo that says all of [its] cars will have some element of electrification going forward, starting with mild hybrid, to a conventional hybrid, to full electric models,” said Boesel. “I think that is really the future, and I think government rules ought to be following that standard.”

Boesel acknowledged the Trump administration’s effort to flat-line federal vehicle fuel economy standards and threat to revoke California’s waiver to set more aggressive regulations, but said he was confident the Golden State, at least, would be able to accelerate EV adoption regardless of the federal policy change. 

“We don’t think there’s legal basis for revoking the waiver, so we don’t expect the waiver to be revoked,” he said. If it is, there are other ways to accomplish the same goal, he added. For instance, California could impose higher registration fees on gas-guzzlers and further incentivize plug-ins. 

For now though, California is moving forward on crafting new fuel economy rules for 2026 and beyond, with a goal to establish those new standards by June of 2020. Volvo’s commitment to only offering electrified vehicle platforms in the future is an approach California regulators are looking at closely, said Boesel.

“I think Volvo has made a mark here and set a standard I think all others are going to have to follow,” he said.

Volvo saw the second-largest increase in brand registrations in California in the first half of this year compared to the same period last year. The only company to see a greater increase was Tesla.