Electric vehicle sales in California on the rise — but is it enough to reach the 5 million goal by 2030?

As of Oct. 7, there were 655,088 zero-carbon emission vehicles in the state.

While overall sales for new cars in California dipped in the third quarter, the combined market share for electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids in the Golden State continued to grow.
While overall sales for new cars in California dipped in the third quarter, the combined market share for electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids in the Golden State continued to grow. –Howard Lipin/The San Diego Union-Tribune/TNS

While overall sales for new cars in California dipped in the third quarter, the combined market share for electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids in the Golden State continued to grow. But is the increase moving at a quick enough pace to reach the goal set by state policymakers for 5 million zero-carbon emission vehicles on California’s roads by 2030?

Overall registrations for light duty vehicles (cars, pickup trucks and SUVs) dropped 5.1 percent in California through the first nine months of the year compared to the first three quarters of 2018. But electric vehicles and plug-in hybrid sales increased to 7.9 percent in combined market share during that time frame.

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Hybrids without a plug-in are not considered zero-emission vehicles, or ZEVs, and do not count toward the state’s target of 5 million but if their 5.5 percent of market share is added, the combined percentage of electric vehicles and all hybrids comes to 13.4 percent for the third quarter, an all-time high.

“These numbers pretty much track with what we’ve been seeing, and are a continuing sign that there’s a healthy ZEV market developing in California and that the state’s ZEV goals are achievable,” said Dave Clegern, public information officer for the California Air Resources Board, the state agency in charge of improving air quality.

As of Oct. 7, there were 655,088 ZEVs in the state. To reach the 5 million mark, that figure would have to increase almost eightfold in less than 11 years.

On the other hand, the number of ZEVs in California rose 30 percent between October 2017 and October 2018 (377,480 to 491,000) and increased 33.4 percent between October 2018 and October 2019 (491,000 to 655,088).

“I think the jury is still out” on whether the target can be reached, said Brian Maas, president of the California New Car Dealers Association, the group that released the quarterly numbers.

“You’ve got a lot of models now that have 200-mile range (between charges) and some are even higher than that, so that’s certainly an option for consumers,” Maas said. “I think for most consumers to make a ZEV their primary car, they have to feel confident they can get it charged wherever they need to.”

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There are about 21,000 charging stations statewide and the Air Resources Board has budgeted $1.087 billion in electric vehicle initiatives, with a large share going to building charging stations. The California Public Utilities Commission has set aside almost as much — $1.048 billion, according to a review conducted earlier this year by the Union-Tribune.

The Air Resources Board says the transportation sector accounts for the largest single source of greenhouse gas emissions in California at 41 percent. The figure is even higher in the city of San Diego — 55 percent.

In addition to improved range, another potential reason for the uptick in ZEV sales may be due to higher gasoline prices in California that cracked the $4 per gallon mark at the end of the third quarter.

The Tesla Model 3 has set the pace for ZEV sales. Elon Musk’s more affordable offering has accounted for nearly 50,000 registrations so far this year, making it the third-hottest selling vehicle in California. Only the Honda Civic and the Toyota Camry sold more units through September.

Overall vehicle sales are on a pace to finish the year at 1.91 million registrations, which will break a four-year streak in which sales in California topped the 2 million mark.

“I think a part of it is a lot of people who had pent-up demand during the Great Recession went out and bought cars,” Maas said, but now demand has petered out. “Sales are still solid but I think the market has clearly plateaued.”

In addition, the average price for a new car has reached $37,000. That’s roughly a 10 percent increase in the past three years, which may account for used car sales going up.

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Light trucks drove the increase in sales of used vehicles, 3.8 percent higher through September than at this time last year.

“That’s a pretty typical cyclical pattern,” Maas said. “New car sales start to drop because prices are high and used car sales start to take off. Then used car prices start to increase and then the trend moves back to new cars over time. That’s assuming we don’t have a major recession or some other exterior event that impacts the car market in a dramatic way.”

For years, car sales outpaced pickup trucks and SUVs, especially in California. But consumer preferences for roomy vehicles that offer better fuel efficiency than in years past has led to a role reversal.

The decline in sales of new light truck through September was negligible — off by 0.3 percent. But new car registrations in California were down 10.8 percent.

“Sales are dropping overall, but car sales are falling through the floor,” Maas said.

Nationally, car sales were down 9.8 percent through September but light truck sales were up 3.5 percent.

Top-selling models in California

Through September 2019

  1. Honda Civic 58,967
  2. Toyota Camry 48,760
  3. Tesla Model 3 48,483
  4. Honda Accord 43,709
  5. Toyota Corolla 40,928
  6. Toyota RAV4 40,029
  7. Ford F Series 37,872
  8. Toyota Tacoma 33,930
  9. Chevy Silverado 28,028
  10. Ram Pickup 25,756

Source: California New Car Dealers Association/IHS

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