The Prius is an emblem of the environmentally aware upper middle class, and at this point, electric vehicle purchases are mostly limited to early adopters who have the cash to experiment with an entirely new kind of vehicle. And according to a report (PDF) from the Greenlining Institute, cost and lack of consumer education may shut low-income communities and communities of color (specifically in California) out of the electric vehicle revolution—even though these communities are in dire need of the cleaner air that comes along with having fewer gasoline-fueled cars on the road.
The report presents a number of obvious yet unsettling statistics: 70% of hybrid owners in California are white, even though Californians of color are more concerned about air pollution than whites; 20% of hybrid owners are Latino and even fewer are African-American—even though the overall state population is 60% non-white. An impressive 92% of residents who buy EVs in the state have an income of $75,000 or higher.
This is all largely because of a lack of consumer education, at least among minorities. "There’s the message and there’s the messenger," said C.C. Song, lead author of the report, in an interview with Capitol Weekly. "The marketing just doesn’t reach to these communities. People of color, growing up, the cool cars are the Mercedes, the Lexus." For many of these potential customers, it's not about a lack of income—Latinos, for example, increasingly represent California's middle class.
Low-income communities have another issue to contend with: a lack of affordable EVs. While state and federal rebates and tax credits give a big boost to potential buyers, education about these funding opportunities is clearly lacking.
This is a serious problem—without buyers from all races and income classes, EVs will have a hard time taking off. In California, sales projections for EVs by 2015 are in the 200,000 to 300,000 range. That seems impressive enough, until you take into account that there are 7 million registered cars and trucks in Los Angeles County.
What can be done? Greenlining's report suggests that "creative efforts will be needed to increase EV market penetration in communities of color, including education about how the 'smart grid' can help minimize charging costs," and that "because EVs will likely be unaffordable for many Americans for some time, clean air efforts must include a variety of other strategies, including strengthened public transit and car-sharing programs."
We're onboard with better public transit and car-sharing programs, but who is going to spearhead these creative education efforts? And how will these efforts convince people that an upscale EV (say, a Tesla Roadster) is just as sexy as a gasoline-powered Lexus? These are questions that automakers need to seriously think about in the coming years, or they risk allowing EVs to remain part of a niche market.
[Image: Flickr user Newtown grafitti]