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Big hurdles on the road to moving millions of U.S. drivers into EVs

Persuading a reluctant Congress to spend big on electric vehicles may have been the easy part. Now millions of Americans need to be enticed to buy them.

Rebecca Frank and Sheldon Frank show off their Tesla Model 3 to Meg Balder, center, during the Electric Vehicle Fest at Crossett Brook Middle School in Duxbury, Vt., earlier this month. (Ian Thomas Jansen-Lonnquist for The Washington Post) ( and Ian Thomas Jansen-Lonnquist)

As the White House relishes its victory after swaying a reluctant Congress to spend big on electric vehicles, it now confronts a much heavier lift: nudging tens of millions of skeptical motorists into the cars.

The administration’s push to upend an entrenched culture of fossil-fuel-powered motoring comes as electric cars are struggling to shake their image as a trophy of coastal elites, unreliable and a headache to charge. They are all perceptions GOP lawmakers are eagerly amplifying as they work to undermine the administration’s agenda.

Federal agencies are scrambling to improve the driving experience and boost public confidence in the technology, funding a half-million new chargers around the country and launching a new office focused on coordinating the EV transition. The climate bill President Biden signed Aug. 16 pairs lucrative incentives for car purchasers with rewards for carmakers that increase their production of EVs and move their production lines to the United States, giving the companies new motivation to embrace the transition and promote the vehicles.

But adding to the administration’s challenge is that the vehicles are in such short supply that even enthusiasts are chafing at the wait lists and inflated prices.

“It is going to be a tough few years,” said Gregory Pierce, co-director of the Luskin Center for Innovation at the University of California at Los Angeles. “There is just a shortage of EVs most people can afford, even when you stack all the incentives.”

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The roadblocks to mainstream adoption of the cars are particularly daunting in states like West Virginia, where driver suspicion of the reliability of the technology is compounded by underinvestment in charging infrastructure.

When Robert Fernatt gets asked how easy it is to drive across West Virginia in an electric car, the answer is frequently that you can’t.

“It is just really tough,” said Fernatt, who heads the state’s chapter of the Electric Auto Association. A large swath of the state has no fast chargers capable of juicing anything other than a Tesla, a luxury car out of reach for most West Virginians.

“A lot of time we tell folks from out of state to choose a route that avoids West Virginia altogether,” Fernatt said.

Even California, the nation’s electrification pioneer, is facing vexing obstacles as it tries to step up the pace of the transition. The cars are so scarce and so expensive that getting drivers into them is tough even with state and federal subsidies for low-income motorists that will soon add up to as much $17,500 for the purchase of a used model.

As automakers rush to shore up their supply chains and regulators push them to add more affordable models, clean-car advocates are mounting an epic persuasion campaign.

Selling the majority of drivers on the cars — at any price — will be tough for some time. Most drivers would still not seriously consider buying or leasing an electric vehicle today if they were in the market for a car, according to an extensive survey by Consumer Reports released in April.

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“I want to believe these are good cars, but I am like, ‘Is this a repeat of the flip-phone era? Should I be sitting this out for now?’ ” said Kara Cooper, a 32-year-old photographer in Washougal, Wash.

Cooper took the plunge in 2020 when she bought a used Chevy Bolt, but the battery wouldn’t charge properly, she said.

“I was pretty turned off by the experience,” Cooper said. She returned the Bolt to the dealership and has been on the hunt for an affordable electric replacement for her gas-powered Volkswagen Jetta since then. “It is stressful,” Cooper said. “I have spent so many hours researching this that it is kind of embarrassing.”

There are 2.5 million registered electric vehicles in the United States, and many of their drivers rave about them. But just getting to that point has been an expensive and resource-intensive undertaking, concentrated largely in a handful of states. Only 5 percent of all new cars sold are zero emissions, and nearly half of those sales take place in a single state, California, according to auto industry and state data.

Hitting Biden’s goal for half of all new cars sold nationwide to be electric by 2030 will probably require many more states to embrace some of the aggressive outreach and regulatory approaches designed by leaders in the transition, such as California and Massachusetts.

Not everyone is on board.

“It’s a gift to radical environmentalists and to rich, liberal elites,” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) said of the new incentives designed to propel the transition to zero-emission cars and trucks, which include a $4,000 federal tax credit for purchasing a used EV.

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Proponents of the transition say they are not discouraged. They have shown themselves adept at persuading even some of the most skeptical drivers.

“When our customers hear, ‘We are going to save the planet’, they run,” said Tom Knox, head of Valley Clean Air Now, a program through which the San Joaquin Valley air board in California helps low-income families swap their gas guzzlers for EVs. “That sounds expensive to them.” So Knox talks about all the other virtues of going electric: cheaper fuel, fewer breakdowns, quiet engines.

Thousands of low-income Californians have transitioned into used EVs through that program and identical initiatives elsewhere in the state.

“I never pictured myself driving one of these cars,” said Grady Rapalo, a 36-year-old welder in Stockton who now raves about the plug-in Ford C-Max made affordable to him by the program’s $9,500 rebate. “I grew up in Oakland on muscle cars. I looked at these little square looking cars and I was like, ‘Who does that?’ ”

Rapalo initially took some ribbing from friends and family, he said, but the joke was on them as gas prices soared. His mother and uncle became converts, so impressed with the technology that they bought three plug-in hybrids between them.

Yet the California program is under stress amid the EV shortage. Only a few years ago, there was a flood of used EVs available for less than $14,000. Now, even some of the cheapest used models sell for more than $20,000.

California officials acknowledge their subsidies are more than most states can afford. But the state sees itself as a bellwether in the energy transition, using its regulations and the power of a 30 million-vehicle market to push automakers to scale up production, which will ultimately lower prices nationwide.

The price is only part of the challenge. Luring drivers into the cars also requires ambitious and targeted outreach campaigns like a fair that took place recently in Duxbury, Vt., to give prospective buyers a chance to test the vehicles and ask questions about them.

“I am not an early adopter. I don’t have the latest iPhone,” said Carla Francis, 33, who had assumed zero-emission vehicles were out of her price range.

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Then she learned the sticker prices she had seen did not factor in state and federal subsidies and that an electric Hyundai Kona SUV could be hers for $26,000. Last week, she brought that Hyundai to the fair in Duxbury, where she was among 20 EV owners who evangelized about their cars.

The spread of such events across the country — even West Virginia now holds them — highlights how little car showrooms are doing to promote and market electric models. It is a considerable barrier to mass adoption.

“You often find dealers who will avoid selling them to you because it doesn’t fit into their business model, which is oil changes and engine repairs,” said Joel Gates, a Chevy Bolt-driving retired musician in Rhode Island. He volunteers as an “ambassador” to the EV-curious for the Green Energy Consumers Alliance.

It is one of several green-power nonprofits nationwide through which environmentalists sell drivers on the virtues of going electric while pushing governments and automakers to step up the pace of the transition.

The alliance tries to fill the void left by automakers in Rhode Island and Massachusetts, giving consumers tools to compare different EV models and vintages, and steering them to dealerships it partners with that are enthusiastic and well-informed. It has helped more than 1,000 people purchase a car.

Other nonprofits are opening showroom-like “education centers” just to dispel myths, showcase battery technology and, most important, give drivers a chance to take a spin.

An education center scheduled to open next summer in Sturbridge, Mass., promises “a new way of socializing EVs to mainstream society.” In Oregon, the advocacy group Forth regularly brings its electric vehicle “Mobile Showcase” to rural and immigrant communities where there has been little exposure to the technology.

In most of the states embracing the transition, regulators are trying to look beyond car owners. New Jersey hopes to replicate some of California’s success with pilot projects that bring electric car sharing programs that operate like Zipcar into middle- and low-income communities, and also offer incentives for drivers with ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft to go electric.

“Our goal shouldn’t be to persuade everyone to buy an electric vehicle,” said Cathleen Lewis, the E-Mobility program manager at the state public utility board. “It should be to persuade you to transition to electric in whatever transportation you are using now.”

Some green tech companies see opportunity in the confused state of the electric vehicle market. Octopus Energy recently launched an “EV Concierge” program through which it finds vehicles for Texas drivers to lease, locks down all the incentives for them and shows up at their house to install the charger.

It then enrolls them in the company’s program that coordinates home vehicle charging with the times when the power grid has the most — and cheapest — energy to spare. The monthly car lease charges are delivered to consumers right on their energy bill.

Back in West Virginia, where there are just 1,000 electric cars registered in the state and skepticism of the technology runs deep, the transition is certain to be slower going. But Fernatt isn’t giving up.

Climate change worries may not lure the state’s drivers to go electric, he said, but anxiety over foreign oil dependence and missing out on big investments that auto companies are making in EV production will prove a potent marketing tool.

“What I tell folks is this transition will happen,” Fernatt said. “There are hundreds of billions of dollars being invested by private companies, not just government. Regardless of who is president, these companies are making this investment that is laying the groundwork for a whole new manufacturing sector.”

“As a state,” Fernatt said, “why would you not want to be a part of that?”

correction

A previous version of this story said President Biden signed the climate bill on Monday. He signed it on Tuesday, Aug. 16. This story has been updated.

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