U.S. plug-in electric vehicle sales increased by 25 percent to just under 200,000 units in 2017. While promising, the rate of growth still lags what is needed to drive down greenhouse gas emissions from transportation.

Last week, policy experts gathered at the University of California, Davis for a conference focused on what researchers at the Institute of Transportation Studies (ITS-Davis) call the “three revolutions” -- shared, automated and electric vehicles.

Speakers on a panel on the conference’s first day were asked what immediate steps could be taken by policymakers to boost EV adoption. Gil Tal, the research director of ITS-Davis’ Plug-in Hybrid and Electric Vehicle Research Center, said a good place to start is simply alerting consumers to the fact that EVs exist.

Tal cited research by his colleague Ken Kurani, recently reported on by Greentech Media, demonstrating that even in California, the nation’s largest electric-vehicle market, 95 percent of consumers lack awareness of EVs. One factor, he said, is that a small share of consumers buy most of the new cars sold in the state.

From 2010-2017, 46 percent of California households did not purchase a new car. Meanwhile, about 16 percent of households purchased two or more new vehicles over the same period. If this group does "buy electric cars, then we’ll see a lot of electric cars on the road,” said Tal.

Uber seeks to electrify fleets

Transportation electrification requires not only reaching individual commuters, but also switching over vehicle fleets. Electrifying fleets of shared vehicles, in particular, can help boost the number of EV miles traveled.

On that front, Adam Gromis, Uber’s lead on sustainability and environmental impact, said the results of an early Uber pilot in London showed positive results. When 60 EVs were dropped into a ride-sharing network for just four months, they contributed 40,000 rides.

“I used to do ride-and-drives when I worked for CARB [California Air Resources Board] and the California Fuel Cell Partnership,” recalled Gromis. “We would be excited about getting 500 people in a bunch of cars on a weekend. Sixty cars, four months, 40,000 rides -- it’s absolutely exceptional for getting more people to touch and see and feel and ride in electric technology.”

The bad news, he said, is the economics for Uber drivers. “Drivers face a huge headwind in switching to EVs -- even when the total cost of ownership is less than other good alternatives like a Prius.”

He added, “That is because...the demands on their time in terms of looking for charging [stations], accessing charging, and spending time charging take away from fare-earning opportunities. That headwind is one we all need to address, and we know we can’t address on our own.”

Charging solutions for ride-share drivers

Tal and Gromis both talked about potential charging solutions for Uber, Lyft and other transportation network company drivers. These drivers are willing to go a bit farther to access charging, Tal said, if stations are available when they need them.

“We have to manage it,” he said. “Once we send these drivers at the right time and to the right location, we have a great opportunity to have much higher utilization rates of very expensive infrastructure.”

“Our drivers today who have EVs, they know all the hacks about where to find the electrons at the right time -- the cheapest ones, the ones most [frequently] available," said Gromis.

He recounted feedback from Uber EV drivers in San Francisco who said they charge at EVgo stations at Whole Foods, but after 10:00 p.m. the lots are closed and they can’t access the stations.

Other drivers end up going to garages built for commuters, which means they end up paying to access the garage and park, and then wait for what could be, if it’s a Level II station, a several-hour-long charging session.

Uber asked drivers: What would you like to see in a charging network? “The most common thing that we hear...from drivers all over the country is bathrooms," said Gromis. "Have a bathroom available so I can have a useful break.”

Add to that Wi-Fi, cafes and other things drivers can do with the downtime. “We’re starting to see some early indications that if we just started thinking about the shared-use driver as a potential customer for electrons, we might build the infrastructure slightly differently,” he said.

Tesla wants reformed subsidies and EV-ready parking spaces

All of the panelists agreed on the need for policies focused not simply on outputs -- such as EV sales -- but on performance-based outcomes. In such a scenario, said Tal, policy would be primarily concerned with things like: How much energy is the car using? When and where was it used? How many people were riding in the car (if there were any people in the car)?

Ken Morgan, director of business development and government affairs at Tesla, said officials at CARB are looking to incorporate some of these considerations in the next wave of incentives to promote higher-range electric vehicles under California’s zero-emission vehicle (ZEV) mandate.

Morgan said CARB, as part of the midterm review for its Advanced Clean Cars program, presented scenarios under which it could orient ZEV credits to incentivize higher-range battery electric cars. Last month, China did just that by adopting higher subsidies for EVs with more than 400 kilometers (249 miles) of range.

“The first wave of the ZEV mandate got us a bunch of 100-mile-range cars, which was fine for a test fleet," Morgan said. "But if you want to move to commercialization, you need higher-range vehicles."

He offered another example. The $500 EV rebate offered by Northern California utility PG&E is the same for a 20-mile-range plug-in hybrid electric vehicle as it is for a 250-mile-range battery electric vehicle.

“Why would we not alter the value based on the actual performance of the vehicle?” he asked.

Morgan also mentioned a new favorite policy: EV-ready new construction. Atlanta passed an ordinance in November 2017 requiring new residential and commercial construction to be wired for EV charging. In new commercial parking structures, 20 percent of spaces must be EV-ready. San Francisco enacted a similar measure in April 2017.

“It’s a fantastic policy that we need to be seeing across the country,” he said. “It’s much more expensive to go in and tear up a parking structure, especially in multi-unit dwellings, after the time of construction. In any dense urban environment, wherever you’re building parking structures that are going to be in place for the next four or five decades, why would you not wire that building [for EV charging] today?”