Electric vehicles increasing in popularity in U.S., with Bay Area leading charge in EV purchases

An increasing number of Americans are interested in becoming electric car owners, with California, and notably the Bay Area leading the charge when it comes to EV purchases. 

A new AAA report released on Tuesday found 20 percent of U.S. drivers, or 50 million Americans said they will likely go electric when they make their next vehicle purchase. That's up from 15 percent in 2017. 

The report cites the increased interest to lower-than-average costs for the vehicles, improved driving ranges, and newly implemented safety features.

“Today, electric vehicles have mainstream appeal,” said Greg Brannon, AAA’s director of Automotive Engineering. “While concern for the environment is still a major motivator, AAA found U.S. drivers are also attracted to the lower long-term costs and advanced technology features that many of these vehicles offer,” Brannon added.

Researchers say prices are becoming more within reach for consumers with vehicles like General Motors' Chevrolet Bold, a mid-priced long-range electric car and the Nissan Leaf. 

Palo Alto-based Tesla is also ramping up production of its first mass-market electric car, the Model 3, with its base price starting at $35,000. 

AAA also said the rising cost of gasoline may be encouraging more people to consider buying electric cars. Prices at the pump have been on a steady increase with the average for regular unleaded in California hitting $3.64 on Tuesday. That's up from $2.98 a year ago.

AAA said motorists are also weighing maintenance costs which are lower on EVs, as they don't need oil changes and have fewer parts than conventional engines.

The new report also found so-called "range anxiety" is easing. 

In the past, a majority of those surveyed expressed concern over the possibility of running out of power before a driver can recharge.

Among those who stated that they are unsure or unwilling to consider an electric vehicle for their next purchase, 58 percent express concern about running out of juice while driving. That's down from 73 percent from last year.

Perhaps not surprisingly, there is a generation divide when it comes to how much that anxiety weighs in, with it less of a concern for millennials (48 percent) than Generation X (64 percent) or Baby Boomers (66 percent).

With the nationwide interest rising in electric cars, new figures also show California continues to play a major role in the growth of the electric vehicle market.

In 2017, about 96,000 electric vehicles were sold in the Golden State, according to the non-profit International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT). That accounts for half of all EV purchases in the U.S.

The ICCT's report found the Bay Area has some of the highest electric vehicle sales and market shares in the world.

And within California, the top six cities for electric vehicle sales (compared to total car sales) were all in the Silicon Valley: Palo Alto, Saratoga, Los Altos, Cupertino, Los Gatos and Menlo Park.

Berkeley and Oakland saw significant increases in the sales of new electric vehicles last year compared to the previous year, 54 percent and 52 percent respectively.

Santa Rosa came in as the California city with the highest percentage increase in demand for electric vehicles in the state with at least 500 electric vehicles sold, a 61 percent increase from the number of new EVs sold the previous year.

Santa Rosa was also among the cities listed as having more extensive public charging stations.

The ICCT's report noted that the metropolitan areas with the most public charging stations 
tend to have the highest electric vehicle market share. 

San Jose with a 13% electric vehicle share, has about 6 times the U.S. average number of public
charging stations per capita; San Francisco, with a 7% share, has about 4 times the
U.S. average; and Los Angeles, with a 5% share, has more than twice the U.S. average, the report found. 

Researchers said while California continues to lead the nation in electric car sales, driven by the state's efforts and policies to reduce smog and fight global warming, it still has a long way to go before it can reach its goal of 5 million emissions-free cars on the road by 2030 and all zero-emission vehicle sales by no later than 2050. 

"More aggressive policy will be needed to achieve California's long-term goals... This will require sales of electric vehicles to rise substantially over the next decade, perhaps to half of all new vehicle sales by 2030," the ICCT said.

To reach its goals, researchers recommend California continue to invest in electric vehicle incentives and programs, as well as the development of more charging stations to support more electric cars on the roads.