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Opinion Virginia can help ease the transition to clean cars

An electric vehicle charging station. (Kate Patterson for The Washington Post)

Kevin Reilly is owner and president of Alexandria Hyundai. David Friedman is vice president of advocacy at Consumer Reports.

Car buyers shouldn’t have to cross state lines to find the vehicle they’re looking for, and dealers shouldn’t have to lose out on business when they do. But that's exactly what is happening in Virginia today. We’ve experienced it first hand, but there’s an obvious way to fix the problem.

David Friedman visited Kevin Reilly’s Hyundai dealership in Alexandria looking to test drive a new electric vehicle — a mainstream car already on the market. Reilly wanted to help Friedman. But selling an electric vehicle in Virginia is more difficult than it should be. Reilly was able to help Friedman find the vehicle he was looking for but had to connect him with an auto dealership in Maryland to make it happen. Though Friedman ultimately got the car he wanted, Reilly — and Virginia’s economy — missed out. And this trend will only worsen unless Virginia lawmakers take action.

Let’s quickly glance at the rearview mirror of Virginia auto sales: Almost one-third of plug-in electric vehicles registered in Virginia at the start of 2020 were purchased outside the state. Vehicle purchases across state lines are not unheard of, but Virginia’s rate of out-of-state purchases for electric vehicles presents a big problem. As electric vehicles grow in popularity over the next decade, it will be a huge loss for Virginia businesses and a costly inconvenience for car buyers.

The big difference between the two states is that Maryland has a program that expands consumer choice when it comes to car buying. This program, adopted by 11 states representing more than 30 percent of the U.S. auto market, ensures that auto manufacturers provide dealers with a minimum share of electric vehicles based on annual sales, guaranteeing ample supply for their lots and showrooms. Car manufacturers decide how their electric vehicles get distributed across the country, and they tend to prioritize the states that adopt this program. It can have a big impact; a recent analysis found that inventories of the Toyota Prius Prime and the Hyundai Kona EV cars were seven to 10 times higher in Maryland cities than in comparable Virginia cities.

Thankfully, Virginia’s marketplace problem has a ready-made solution. There’s now a bill that, if passed by the Virginia Senate, would allow the governor to bring this program to Virginia. Passing House Bill 1965 would mean that the State Air Pollution Control Board could ensure that, as more kinds of electric vehicle models hit the market over the coming years, Virginia drivers who are interested in switching to an electric vehicle wouldn’t need to cross the river to find what they’re looking for.

That would be a win for car buyers, auto dealerships and Virginia’s economy. For dealerships, it means having what customers are looking for. Seven in 10 adult drivers in Virginia say they are interested in getting an electric vehicle at some point in the future, including three in 10 who would consider an electric vehicle for their very next lease or purchase. And as upfront prices drop and highly anticipated all-electric pickup trucks and SUVs hit the market, that interest could rise significantly. For car buyers, switching to an electric vehicle can mean saving thousands of dollars in the long run. That’s partly because electric vehicle owners today are saving 50 percent on maintenance and repair costs, and saving 60 percent on operating costs by switching from fueling to charging, according to new research by Consumer Reports. And for Virginia’s economy, it means revenue from stronger auto dealerships and more consumer money being spent in the state. Unlike gasoline, all of which is imported to Virginia, most of the money spent on electricity to charge electric vehicles will stay in the state because more than 80 percent of it is generated here. Plus, money that consumers don’t spend on maintenance, repairs or operating costs will be spent on other things, including new cars.

And even those who don’t plan to get an electric vehicle benefit when people switch to electric. Arlington County scored a failing grade on ozone pollution in the American Lung Association’s most recent State of the Air report. Fairfax scored a D, and Henrico and Prince William counties squeaked by with Cs. More electric vehicles mean less asthma and healthier lungs for our kids and fewer respiratory ailments for all. That’s in part because charging an electric vehicle is much better for the air than burning gasoline in our cars. Analysis by the American Lung Association shows that electric vehicles will reduce asthma and premature deaths and deliver billions in nationwide health benefits.

But the federal government has an important role to play as well. To help accelerate the transition to electric vehicles, and the benefits they will provide consumers, the state’s economy and our health, Virginia state lawmakers should urge their federal counterparts to expand popular electric vehicle purchase tax incentives and investments in public fast-charging infrastructure. When combined, these policy actions will make it even easier for drivers to not only buy an electric vehicle in Virginia but to drive it, too.

Read more:

Jack Gillis: Electric cars are finally starting to take off. Congress should keep them affordable.

Robert J. Samuelson: Why fossil fuels survive

George F. Will: Do automakers dream of electric cars?