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Why do 1 in 5 electric vehicle owners switch back to a gas-powered car?

When researchers dug into the question, they found some unsurprising reasons—such as charging difficulty; and some unexpected ones—such as gender and dwelling type.
April 29, 2021

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California, with its climate-forward policies and wealthy, tech-savvy districts, has been the bellwether for electric car adoption in the U.S. and the country’s largest market for EVs. But that doesn’t mean everyone who buys an EV stays committed to it. Research has shown, in fact, that about a fifth of those who buy or lease a hybrid or battery-electric vehicle end up switching back to gasoline-powered cars on their next purchase.

A pair of researchers from the University of California Davis decided to find out why. In a new Nature Energy paper, they show that lack of easy access to charging at home was the key reason, and among the more expected reasons. But a more surprising one was being female.

People tend to purchase electric cars because of their environmental benefits and ease of maintenance. And this switch to electric is easier in California, which still offers clean vehicle rebates, and also enforces a Zero Emission Vehicle mandate for car manufacturers. And the state’s Governor put the nail in the gasoline car coffin in September when he announced that the state is banning the sale of new gas-powered cars starting in 2035.

So why might someone buy a conventional gas-powered car after they’ve bought an EV? To find out, Scott Hardman and Gil Tal from the Institute of Transportation Studies at UC Davis sent a survey to over 14,000 people who had acquired an EV in California between 2012 and 2018. Over 4,160 households filled out the survey, and of those about 1,840 had made a decision about their follow-up vehicle.

The survey showed that most of the respondents planned to keep a battery-powered vehicle. But just as past research has shown, about 20 percent of respondents had already reverted to or planned to revert to a gas-powered vehicle.

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Those who gave up on their EVs lived in smaller households so they had fewer vehicles. They were also younger, had smaller earnings, rented more, were less likely to live in a single-family standalone house, and were less likely to be male.

What were their reasons? Charging was the biggest thorn. Specifically, the lack of a 240-Volt power outlet at home. “We know that home charging is most influential charging location in the decision to buy an EV,” says Hardman. “It is the most frequently used, the cheapest, the most convenient, and increases odds of continuing PEV ownership.”

While many in single-family homes can easily get home-chargers, for lower income households a home charger can be unaffordable, and those who live in apartments and condos may not be able to install a charger where they park, he says. “Maybe we need to think more about getting home charging access for as many households as possible.”

Access to public charging infrastructure, on the other hand, did not seem to play a big role in the decision to keep or forgo an EV, says Hardman, “So any public charging investments may not change buyers’ decisions.”

And while the researchers did not see any evidence that newer models with longer ranges would impact EV ownership decisions, the brand of car seemed to make a difference. Those with Teslas were less likely to abandon their car, while those with Fiats were much more likely to go back to a gas-powered vehicle.

Source: Scott Hardman & Gil Tal. Understanding discontinuance among California’s electric vehicle owners, Nature Energy, 2021.

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