One in five Californian EV drivers revert to piston power—but why?

woman's hand plugging in a charger in an electric car socket
Enlarge / Poor charging infrastructure is a big reason that some Californians decided not to get another electric vehicle.

By now, we know a lot of ways to get people to buy electric vehicles. In Europe and China, it’s simple: mandate them. Policymakers aren’t nearly that brave here in the US, so instead we’ve been relying on subsidies for early adopters and the fact that a test drive is often enough to convince someone to switch to a plug-in.

Much less is known about why someone might buy an EV but then decide to go back to fossil fuel for their next vehicle. The very idea is probably enough to stimulate some outrage among the Ars audience, but according to a new study in Nature Energy, not only does such a thing happen, but it has happened at a rate of about 20 percent among early adopters in California, the largest market in the US for plug-in vehicles.

Scott Hardman and Gil Tal at University of California, Davis decided to examine the rate and reasons that Californians abandoned their electric cars, something the researchers say has not been examined until now. With the help of the Californian Air Resources Board, they surveyed Californians who bought either plug-in hybrid EVs (PHEVs) or battery EVs (BEVs) between 2012 and 2018, contacting more than 14,000 households. In total, 4,167 households completed the survey, but only 1,842 respondents had made a decision about whether or not to keep that plug-in.

Just under four-fifths (1,458 respondents) said they planned to keep their plug-in. Of these, 1,213 had already moved on to another EV and another 245 had bought their EV after the end of its lease. But just over 20 percent (384 respondents) went back to pure internal combustion for their next vehicle (a weighted 18 percent for BEV owners and 20 percent for PHEV owners).

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the the sociodemographics of the EV abandoners was the opposite of the traits that correlate highly with buying an EV. (The sample size here is slightly smaller at 1,727 households, 356 of whom left the EV life.) They were more likely to have smaller households, fewer vehicles in the household, they were younger, earned less, rented more, were less likely to live in a detached house, and were less likely to be male than the Californians who stuck with EVs.

The pleasure points of plug-ins were broadly the same for those who kept their EVs versus those who didn’t: recharging costs, then reliability, then safety. And in each of those three cases, the EV keepers were a few percentage points happier.

Electric driving range and the convenience of charging were the pain points, but charging was the biggest culprit: the authors found that “[f]or a one-point increase in satisfaction with the convenience of charging a BEV, there are 19.5% lower odds of discontinuing BEV adoption.”

Also unsurprisingly, those keeping their EVs had more access to level 2 (240 V AC) charging at home, as well as more access to charging generally.

Tesla had the lowest rate of abandonment, at 11 percent, which may well be a reflection of the maturity of both the Tesla electric powertrain during the sample years, as well as the expansive reach of its public charging infrastructure. At the opposite end of the spectrum, Fiat accounted for the most departees; this is in addition to the company losing a staggering $20,000 on every Fiat 500e. (In the supplementary data you can see the full breakdown of the different brands of EV that people gave up.)

Nature Energy, 2021 DOI: 10.1038/s41560-021-00814-9  (About DOIs).