The pressure’s on. Gasoline is California’s biggest source of carbon emissions and air pollution. The state must drastically reduce gasoline use in the next 5 to 10 years to have a chance of protecting its climate and air quality. If it fails, the climate, health and economic impacts of vehicle emissions will continue to be borne disproportionately by people of color.
With 98% of its 15 million cars running on gasoline, California can address this problem only by rapidly accelerating the switch to electric vehicles (EVs). The state has set targets of 1.5 million EVs on the road by 2025 and 5 million by 2030. It is spending hundreds of millions of dollars to reach these targets, but the conversion to EVs is going too slowly. Fewer than 715,000 EVs have been sold in California since 2011, and only 156,000 EVs were sold in 2019 – a 12% drop from 2018.
So why aren’t Californians switching to EVs more quickly?
The Big Misperception: No Place to Charge
In poll after poll, people say that lack of charging is the biggest factor stopping them from buying an EV. Roadside charging in particular is what people want to see. If gas car drivers think they won’t be able to find EV charging on road trips, they won’t shift to an EV.
The irony is that the state has plenty of high speed roadside charging, and is continuing to build more at a rapid pace. It’s just hard to see, tucked away in shopping centers and restaurant parking lots, like this:
But gas car drivers are used to gas stations’ giant signs, brightly lit canopies, and prominent highway exit signs.
EV charging’s low profile relative to gasoline is working against EV adoption. Despite a doubling in the number of California public charging stations between 2014 and 2017, awareness of EV charging didn’t budge, and even today most gas car drivers still have the impression there aren’t enough charging stations.
Let’s recap: Gas car drivers need to see lots of charging to be willing to switch to an EV. California has lots of charging, but gas car drivers can’t see it, and therefore wrongly perceive there’s not enough EV charging.
How can we address the gap between perception and reality?
Installing Highway Exit Signage: An Effective, Cheap Solution
Installing highway exit signs for every roadside EV charger is an effective way to change gas car drivers’ perceptions and improve EV charging awareness. A recent study showed that nearly half of those who recalled seeing EV charging signage or a charging station would consider getting an EV, vs 15% of those who did not.
And yet, of the 1,024 public fast charging stations (4,522 charging ports) in California, fewer than 50 have any kind of highway signage.
EV charging signs are not expensive. According to Caltrans, they cost as little as $25 and installation runs $400 to $3,900. This is a small expense compared to what California spends on installing fast chargers ($90,000 to $180,000 per charging station).
Some people think there’s no need for EV charging signage – after all, EV drivers use smartphone apps to find roadside charging. This misses a key point. Gas car drivers don’t have EV charging apps. They are the ones who need to see EV charging signs to have the confidence to switch to EVs.
The State Should Take Charge
Under the current system, the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) will pay for and install EV charging highway exit signs for any fast charger within 3 miles of the highway, but only if the local jurisdiction (city or county) first places the “follow-up” signs for each turn from the highway exit to the charging station. That system isn’t working – fewer than 5% of California’s fast chargers have any highway signage. The state should install the signs itself to achieve scale and standardization, and ensure the job gets done.
The climate crisis requires slashing gasoline use. People will trade their gas cars for EVs when they are confident that they can find roadside charging when and where they need it. The state should instill that confidence by adding highway signage for every roadside EV fast charger immediately
EV Fast Charging & Highway Signage