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Electric car buying: What you need to know now and in the future

Electric car buying: What you need to know now and in the future

While electric cars accounted for just 8% of California’s new light vehicle sales in the first nine months of 2021, such purchases are expected to increase dramatically — and with them, the odds that you’ll be thinking more about going electric yourself.

Gov. Gavin Newsom in 2020 set a nonbinding goal of having all new passenger vehicles sold in 2035 be zero emission, but the state Air Resources Board will consider making that a mandate for carmakers and dealers in the coming year. Meanwhile, clean air activists are pushing for additional incentives, carmakers continue to expand their electric offerings, and technology is making the vehicles increasingly attractive.

While the electric market continues to be a small share of total cars sold, the 123,244 new electric vehicle registrations in the state over the first nine months of 2021 was a 68% jump over the same period in 2020, according to an analysis by the California Business Roundtable.

The screen and front end of a Tesla Model 3 Standard Range Plus, self-driving electric car, on the 55 freeway at the intersection of the 5 freeway on Thursday, December 30, 2021. (Photo by Mark Rightmire, Orange County Register/SCNG) 

Driving the push is climate change, greenhouse gases and air pollution, concerns amplified by Southern California perennially registering the worst air quality in the nation.

“The transportation sector is the leading source of harmful air and climate pollution, and the urgency of strategies and investments in zero-emission technologies that benefit all communities become clearer every day,” said Will Barrett, a senior director at the American Lung Association.

The American Lung Association and the Coalition for Clean Air are pushing Newsom and the Air Resources Board on several fronts to accelerate the transition to zero-emission vehicles, which now consist overwhelmingly of electric cars but also include hydrogen fuel cell-powered engines. Among the organizations’ goals this year are convincing rule makers to accelerate near-term benchmarks for the transition and to increase incentives for lower-income drivers who typically buy used cars.

So even if a zero emission vehicle — dubbed ZEV — isn’t on your radar yet, it may be soon. Here’s what you’ll need to know as that day approaches.

Don’t electric cars cost more?

Not necessarily. Rebates and other subsidies can help offset the usually higher retail price. Although rebates have been declining since 2019 and the number of ZEVs sold without subsidies has been increasing since 2015, according to the California Business Roundtable report. Typically, lower fuel and maintenance costs eventually surpass any difference in price compared with similar gasoline-fueled models.

But the bigger news is that the difference between the initial purchases costs of ZEVs and gas vehicles is disappearing.

“Electric vehicles should be cheaper to buy on average than combustion vehicles in about five years, without subsidies,” Bloomberg reported this year. And Volkswagen, the world’s largest car maker, said it expected the cost of its electric and gas vehicles to be about the same by 2025.

Even so, Congress has discussed expanding the federal rebate program.

A Tesla Model 3 Standard Range Plus, self-driving electric car on Thursday, December 30, 2021, in North Tustin. (Photo by Mark Rightmire, Orange County Register/SCNG) 

How much cheaper is electric fuel?

Comparing the Mustang Mach R electric SUV to the Toyota Rav4 gas vehicle, the Mach R would save a someone who drives 200 miles weekly in Los Angeles a total of $721 in annual fuel costs — if the charging was done at home — according to a Wall Street Journal report. Most places in the country, road trips would cost more for electric vehicles than their gas counterparts because of charging station costs. But because California’s gas prices are so high, there would be a modest savings for the electric car on road trips as well.

When considering all related costs, it’s currently “slightly cheaper” over the vehicle’s life to own the Mach R, according to the Journal report.

Why aren’t there more electric trucks?

Good question, given that new light trucks and SUVs have outsold new cars in California since 2017. While cars have been the primary focus for electric vehicle makers, trucks and SUVs are starting to roll off assembly lines. Notably, Ford’s best-selling F series includes a 2022 electric F-150 with a 300-mile range — and can power a home for three days. The first models are expected to hit dealers’ lots in the spring.

Attracting a growing buzz is Irvine-based Rivian, which will be rolling out two higher end electric vehicles — a king cab pickup and a full size SUV. Both will start around $70,000, are designed for on- and offroad-use, and have a range of just over 300 miles. The company is also working with Amazon in developing an electric delivery van. All three vehicles are expected to hit the streets in mid-2022.

“I think the story of 2022 is the light truck ZEVs coming onto the market,” said Bill Magavern, policy director for the Coalition for Clean Air.

I live in an apartment building. How am I going to charge my car?

Access to charging may prove a bigger hurdle than getting everyone into zero emission vehicles, Magavern said.

“Those who don’t have garages are going to find it challenging,” he said. “For multi-family complexes that have parking, the building owners should provide charging access. … Access needs to be integrated in new construction. And there needs to be funding incentives available.”

Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, which recharge at dedicated stations similar to gas cars, could also help address that dilemma if those vehicles become more common.

I can’t afford a new car. What incentives are there for me to drive a ZEV?

The state’s Clean Cars 4 All program pays as much as $9,500 to lower income drivers who swap their gas vehicle for a new or used ZEV or plug-in hybrid. Lower income drivers can also get as much as $7,000 in rebates for buying or leasing clean-fuel cars, thanks to the state’s Clean Vehicle Rebate Program.

But American Lung Association and the Coalition for Clean want more incentives for those drivers. California is home to 40% of the nation’s electric cars and light trucks, but they are concentrated in wealthier coastal areas. The two state Senate districts with the most ZEVs include portions of the Silicon Valley, followed by the coastal Los Angeles district, according to the California Business Roundtable report.

That means smoggier air for poorer neighborhoods, particularly those inland.

“We need to see a greater focus on equitable distribution of clean air benefits in terms of vehicle incentives and charging infrastructure,” Barrett said.

Among steps gaining support from the Coalition for Clean Air, Earthjustice and the Union of Concerned Scientists are incentives for manufacturers to give extended ZEV warranties, which would lower maintenance costs for owners of used vehicles.

Other suggestions include carmaker incentives for ZEVs with retails prices under $25,000 and incentives for free replacement batteries for lower income drivers.

A friend bought an electric car a few years ago, didn’t like it and went back to a gas car. How do I know if an electric car is for me?

UC Davis researchers did an initial round of surveys of electric car owners from 2015 to 2018 before circling back to check on how they liked their purchases. They found that 18% went back to gas cars.

But Magavern, who drives a Tesla Model 3 when he’s not commuting by bicycle, dismissed the study as outdated.

“The ZEVs we have now are nothing like what they had then,” he said. “The pricing and range have improved dramatically. And charging is much easier. Once people drive electric, they don’t go back. It’s a much better driving experience.”

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