In Soft Northeast Electric Vehicles Market, Don’t Blame Consumers

Nissan Leaf charging, northeast electric vehicles

A Nissan Leaf charges on New York’s Lower East Side. | Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images

Ask New Yorkers or other East Coast folks about importing policies from California, and you might hear a dismissive chuckle. “This isn’t California,” many will say. Indeed, it is not. But what about this five-cent plastic bag fee the NYC City Council passed? What about that electric vehicle purchase incentive New York state lawmakers put on the books in 2016? Both things are very California, and a new survey says EVs are just as good a fit for the Northeast as the Golden State.

The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) partnered with Consumers Union, the policy wing of Consumer Reports, to produce the survey on licensed drivers in California and nine states in the northeastern U.S. Drivers were randomly selected and asked about their daily commutes, interest in plug-in vehicles, and other questions to gauge their compatibility with EVs. Judging by the results, consumers are not the main barrier to a better Northeast electric vehicles market.

electric vehicles northeast infographic

While the 55% expressing an interest in EVs is noteworthy, the 52% who said they wanted all automakers to market plug-ins may have been more telling. Consumers in this region do not have access to vehicles like the Fiat 500e or Chevy Spark EV (available only in Maryland). Models like the Toyota RAV4 EV and Honda Fit EV likewise came and went without ever making a sale east of the Mississippi. Call it “compliance car blues.”

The third finding of the survey — that 43% of respondents could use a pure EV to cover their driving needs — had a lot in common with the results found among California’s drivers.

Ford Focus Electric parked on the street in New York City's East Village

Ford Focus Electric parked on the street in New York City’s East Village | Eric Schaal/Autos Cheat Sheet

Some 44% of Californians had driving needs that could be managed by electric cars of the current generation, which mirrors the situation on the East Coast. A Nissan Leaf, Volkswagen e-Golf, or BMW i3 featuring less than 90 miles of range could do the job for drivers anywhere, according to the findings of the survey. Heck, we already knew the first-generation (38-mile) Chevy Volt could handle 80% of the driving needs of Americans in EV mode.

So why are there more than 200,000 EVs registered in the Golden State and a mere fraction of that number in New York, New Jersey, and surrounding states? The UCS/Consumers Union survey included questions that shed light on this discrepancy. For starters, three in 10 drivers said it was difficult to find good information about electric vehicles. Automakers’ limited marketing efforts, combined with minimal public outreach by local governments, were a problem found by the Sierra Club when researching the Northeast electric vehicles market, and it still exists.

Charging infrastructure is another clear problem. Only 39% thought there were too few public charging stations, but this result is largely meaningless when you consider the drivers knew little about EVs and others didn’t care at all. Let’s assume they’ve never tried to charge one on the streets of Brooklyn or Boston. Had they done so and been asked the same question, you would probably see the percentage rise to at least 90.

Yet purchase issues, including availability, may be the most important factor in understanding why the Northeast EV market has grown so sluggishly.

Volkswagen e-Golf charges at solar station on Point Lookout, Long Island

Volkswagen e-Golf charges at solar station on Point Lookout, Long Island. | Source: Eric Schaal/Autos Cheat Sheet

Charging concerns are practical issues to address after you have an EV, but most Northeast consumers have little information about buying one. For example, the survey revealed 82% had no idea about the $7,500 federal tax credit available. We’re guessing they are likewise unaware of other incentives, including HOV lane access on New York highways and the $2,000 purchase incentive Pennsylvania residents have been able to use for years.

Again, these factors may never come in play, as auto dealers in the region rarely market plug-in vehicles to visiting shoppers and may not even have any to show them if they wanted to. Drop-ins by Autos Cheat Sheet to dealerships in New York and Pennsylvania revealed very limited inventory in the EV department. In one case, the largest Ford dealer in the Philadelphia area took several months to get one Focus Electric in stock.

Without consumers buying new electric vehicles, there are no used models for people on a budget, either. In our search for used electric models in February 2016, thousands of results appeared on Cars.com for buyers on the West Coast. Back east, the inventory was limited, and the California-only models of course made no appearances whatsoever.

A lack of information remains a sturdy barrier to electric vehicle adoption everywhere. The UCS team found that 75% of Californians were unaware of that state’s EV incentives, while 80% didn’t know about the federal tax credit. At least you can see them on L.A. streets and charging in SoCal garages, however. Those visuals have helped power that market to a respectable level. For the Northeast electric vehicles market to get a jolt, it will take some doing. At least we know drivers are ready.

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