What will it take to get people to buy electric vehicles? It is one of the biggest questions facing the United States these days as we hope to make some progress towards a net-zero carbon economy. It's all very much a dream at this point, with electric vehicle (EV) adoption rates hovering around two percent nationally, meaning 98 out of 100 new cars sold are still powered only by gasoline.
But selling EVs is only one part of the equation. The other question, one much less often asked, is: what will it take to get people to keep EVs and not switch back to gas cars? If a recent study published in Nature is any indication, that's going to be almost as big a challenge as getting people to switch to EVs in the first place.
Researchers from UC Davis's Institute of Transportation Studies surveyed 1,727 California EV owners between 2015 and 2019 who decided to buy a new car at some point after that EV purchase to find out if they bought another EV or went back to gas. The researchers found that roughly one out of every five EV early adopters "discontinued" EV ownership and switched back to gas-only cars, meaning they actively got rid of the EV they had previously owned and did not replace it with another EV.
To dive into these results, it's worth clarifying what types of EVs there are. Currently, there are three types of cars with large batteries in them: hybrids, plug-in hybrids, and battery electric.
Hybrids like the classic Toyota Prius run entirely on gasoline but use a relatively small battery to provide additional power and improve fuel efficiency. These are not electric vehicles.
Plug-in hybrids (PHEVs) like the Prius Prime and Honda Clarity are in-betweens. They have a larger battery that provides a couple dozen miles of electric-only range before reverting to a traditional hybrid gas-powered mode. PHEVs can both be charged from an outlet to provide electric-only range and get fueled up at a gas station for the traditional hybrid mode. Generally, PHEVs are considered electric vehicles even though they may in fact be worse for the environment as many owners don't plug them in and end up using them as traditional hybrids even though the larger batteries make them heavier and less efficient than traditional hybrids when in gas mode.
And then there are full battery electric vehicles (BEVs) like Teslas and Chevy Bolts. They have very large batteries and no backup gas engines at all.
The study found the rate of switching back to gas cars was roughly similar between PHEV owners (20.1 percent) and BEVs (18.1 percent) although the fact that BEVs was slightly lower is perhaps a good sign. However, there were huge differences between discontinuation rates by automaker. Only 11 percent of Tesla owners switched back to gas, whereas 36.9 percent Fiat 500e owners did so. Toyota and Ford owners also had above-average EV discontinuation rates, whereas Chevrolet and Volkswagen had discontinuation rates of just 14.2 percent and 17.2 percent, respectively.
The big question, of course, is why people gave up on EVs. One of the biggest reasons was, unsurprisingly, charging, which sucks in the United States. Those who discontinued owning a EV were twice as likely to have no charging options at home than those who bought another EV and were about half as likely to have Level 2 charging at home, the kind that can fully charge a BEV overnight. Tellingly, people who relied on "trickle charging" their EVs with a standard outlet—which takes days to provide even a serviceable amount of range for an EV—were more likely to switch back to a gas car than get another EV.
But charging wasn't the only factor why people switched back to gas. The other major factor was how many cars a household had. Those with more vehicles were more likely to buy another EV, probably because they have more flexibility in which vehicle to use and having a "backup" gas car available when needed for longer trips or when another is charging.
Still, one of the most surprising results from the study is what didn't seem to matter in people switching back to gas cars: range.
"Range anxiety," such a pervasive fear it has its own Wikipedia entry, is the idea that people are afraid to buy or drive EVs because they will run out of power and get stuck in the middle of nowhere. Automakers continue to release EVs in the U.S. with greater and greater ranges in the hopes of alleviating range anxiety. But, the study found driving range is not correlated with the decision to stop owning an EV. As the researchers pointed out, this may be because most early adopters have the option of buying an EV with an even greater range if necessary. For example, a 2015 Tesla Model S had an EPA-estimated range of 253 miles per charge, while the current version has up to 412 miles of range. But, if someone who bought an EV in 2015 had poor charging availability, it's not like they can buy a car with a different and more convenient charging system today.
That being said, it's important to remember these were early adopters in a technology most automakers were still experimenting with, so it's not exactly a surprise many customers didn't stick with it. More promisingly, most EV owners (65 percent) who gave them up said they would consider an EV for their next vehicle purchase, an indicator that some of the "discontinued" EV owners may simply be people who leased an EV and didn't exercise the purchase option when the lease ended for whatever reason.
All of this is just another reminder of how challenging transitioning the U.S. vehicle fleet to EVs will be. As the study succinctly put it, "It should not be assumed that once a consumer purchases a PEV they will continue owning one."