Minorities Are Being Left Out Of The Electric Vehicle Revolution

In California, Latinos and African-Americans simply are not buying electric cars. It's time for some new marketing.


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]

Reach Ariel Schwartz via Twitter or email.

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  • Jeremy Burns

    Sorry to disagree Ariel, but what I have experienced talking and studying the consuming behaviors in L.A. areas like Van Nuys, Glendale and Pasadena is that the vast majority of latinos and african americans will reject the EV's/ Hybrid vehicles because they're just awful in design and not flashy at all. For this minorities the car is an extension of their selves and that's why they'd invest almost 90% of their income to get a flashy  used SUV, a Beamer, a Benz or a Cadillac. Maybe in some other states is a matter of education. But in California, my bet is on psychological issues. 

    I guess the only ones who can change this trend could be the Honda CR-Z and the Tesla Model S, because both has focused in the design as well as the performance. If those cars become fashionable, everyone is going to desire to get one like the New Beetle fever by the end of the 90's or the Mini fever in the mid 2000's. 

  • JeffU

    Wow! How racist. So you are saying that you think minorities need some sort of special education on EVs because "they" can't understand the white man's car? Are you living in this world?

    People buy the cars they can afford with the features they like and understand no matter how you want to radicalize car sale to sell your magazine.

  • jkw

    Ariel, you are soooo right on.  Rich upper middle class folks really like nice cool cars like the Prius.....and only lower class minorities don't drive those cool cars. What a crock.

  • Kat Amsterdam

    Lexus (i.e. Toyota) sells most all of it's models with a hybrid option.

  • Doug Groseclose

    Well then, the government should give everyone a Prius I suppose. Oh wait, the government is broke too. This article falls somewhere between misleading (as pointed out by Andrew) and completly trivial.

  • wonkywizzard

    This report might not be as racist as it sounds but as it neglects to point out the the rich people tend to be white and the poor Latin and African American, the figures show that rich people buy expensive cars and poor people don't.

    Race has nothing to do with this, other than the racist policies of the US keep the money in the hands of white people.

  • s fillippone

    Ariel- Interesting. But really, don't bother pondering selling $20k cars to people who make less than $50k a year.  Also, as a side note, did you look at hybrids or EV sales and usage in countries where gas is $8 a gallon? Realisticly it is only marketing that is sellling these types of vehicles in the US and Japan.
        Even so, with ethinic and just plain low income familys, the early 2001 hybrid is still hovering at the $8k mark and do you know how sweet of a ride you can get with that and still have money left to insure it AND fill it with gas??? To this group there are better used vehicle options from motorcycles ($1k-$4k and 50-100mpg) to older AFFORDABLE economy cars i.e. VW, Nissan, or Mitsubishi (1k-4k$ and 28-40mpg) even so, these don't fit the demographic where suburbans and minivans (20-30mpg) rule. These vehicles are more suitable and prefered to suit the stronger family element, to which hybrids and EV's fall very short (and no you can't count a hybrid Caddy Escalade).
      Hard truths can not be fought by giving the little guy a new car. This is a nick in the armor of a much much bigger discussion that has implications that involves the whole world.
      Solutions- A start
       1.Let gas go to real world prices (and maybe start pricing per liter just to make us feel better) our country won't collapse- I promise.The effects are obvious, less traffic, less "guzzlers" on the road, a call for and the use of public transportation,.....
       2. Bring EV and/or hybrid tech to public transportation and optimize and grow public transportation
       3. Wait (15 years or so) untill used EV and Hybrid's are affordable enough to be purchased by the identified groups.

      As long as we don't use our own devices (feet), transportation is a commodity bought and sold in the gas stations and auto want ads of America. No where is that apparent than in the minds of minorities and low income families where, to them, it simply costs too much to care.

  • Tim Heikell

    Since when is a hybrid considered to be an EV? Hybrids are 100% dependent on fossil fuels, they just use a little less of it due to their regenerative braking systems. The hybrid hype amazes me. IMO we need to educate people that hybrids are not alternate fuel vehicles and if we want to wean ourselves off of our dependence of fossil fuels we should focus on true alternative fuel vehicles and not fall for the hybrid hype.

  • Botta

    "But who is going to spearhead these creative education efforts?"  Good question, you should have contacted organizations like AHA (Association of Hispanic Agencies) for some insight into why the US Hispanic market is not being addressed - I have a hunch it might be the car companies themselves.... 

  • Andrew Krause

    Please rewrite headline to read: "EV's Not Popular Among Low Income Carbuyers".

  • Pamela

    Disclosure: I'm white.  I'm also "middle class" according to the gov't, concerned about the environment and gas prices and when I finally could replace my 13-yr-old car 2 years ago, I couldn't afford a Prius.  "Middle class" doesn't really translate to "car buying power" in CA for anyone, white or other.  COL is high here, which makes it hard to save and to deal with high car payments.  Some public transit options from point A to point B cost the same as driving, so the benefits end up stress-reduction and lack of parking hassle unless it's truly your only way to get around.  (And then we pity people, instead of making public transit better for all of us to get around and help the environment.)  Plenty of non-white engineers, etc. in the Bay Area drive a Prius, just check N. SJ corporate parking lots, 101 during commute hours, etc.  Bottom line: if you can afford a car that is 40-50K, a 26-30K Prius is a bargain and better for the environment and can help protect you from gas price changes more than the average driver and your might very well buy that Prius.  If that price range is a stretch, or a slightly used car is better for the family's budget, options are more limited.  And you have to do the math, the Civic and Civic Hybrid of late don't get drastically different gas mileage.  Of course, losing the little yellow stickers this month could mean more Prius models do end up in the used-car lots pretty soon, and put the hybrid in the hands of more young, minority, and even limited-credit persons.  Is the goal, though, a hybrid car in every driveway or carport?  Or transit options that serve all "classes"? If we want diversity, we might be better served getting white people to ride the bus.

  • Ariel Schwartz

    Andrew, it's not just low-income customers. As I mentioned, minorities (specifically Latinos) increasingly make up the middle-class in California. And they're not buying.

  • Pamela

    If we're going to speak specifically about Latinos, let's look at related news from the Pew Research Foundation of late: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07...  Note the severe decline for Latinos as a whole, and the relationship between what is left and underwater mortgages (and you pretty much had to be middle class in the last decade to be in the position to buy, even with sub-prime nonsense, in CA). All that = very little buying power for an expensive to run machine that loses significant value the moment you purchase it.

  • Andrew Krause

    Latinos are not "increasingly making up the middle class in California". According to the 2010 census, latinos make up just 4% of the $35k to $70k bracket. This is inline with 2000 census  numbers, and there has been no appreciable shift in income distributions by race. http://www.census.gov/compendi... that we have facts, lets use logic: If middle class latinos comprise just 4% of the middle class, but own 20% of hybrid or alt fuel vehicles, then there is clearly a much higher rate of penetration among latinos. (This matches the opinion data from the Greenline report, where 85% of Latino's vs 72% of Asians and 61% of whites answered in the affirmative when asked if they were worried about air pollution.)

    Now that we have facts, lets use logic: If middle class latinos comprise just 4% of the middle class, but own 20% of hybrid or alt fuel vehicles, then there is clearly a much higher rate of penetration among latinos. (This matches the opinion data from the Greenline report, where 85% of Latino's vs 72% of Asians and 61% of whites answered in the affirmative when asked if they were worried about air pollution.)

    Any decent knowledge of statistics would generate only one conclusion: the strongest correlation between demographics and purchases of alt-fuel and hybrid vehicles is income. Lets do better than regurgitating press releases in the future.

  • Dennis Jung

    I almost fell out of my chair laughing at the "It's time for some new
    marketing" line.  I love Fast Company, but this is the most naive story since:

    I'm with Andrew on this.  There's a huge
    difference between lower middle class and upper middle class that's not
    being accounted for.  I just don't see how the numbers of Latino car
    buyers with incomes over $75,000 could even come remotely close to the
    number with lower middle class incomes.

    In the Greenlining Institute report it says:
    optimistic as we all want to be about electhis is the most naive
    article since:
    vehicles, it would be tragic if these vehicles become just another
    marker of our society’s growing racial wealth gap."

    Tragic?  It's
    just reality.  I'm sure California minorities also have a high concern
    for pollution and additives to their food, but does that mean they're
    paying for organic, free-range, dolphin-friendly, drug-free groceries?

    be interested in seeing some research into whether or not most hybrid
    buyers own them as second cars or as primary transportation, the typical
    family size of hybrid buyers, and the difference in representative
    family size of all car buyers vs. Latino/minority car buyers.  If you're
    making less than $75,000 a year, the one car you own probably has to be
    big/convenient enough for a family, and I don't see a lot of hybrid
    mini vans yet (although they are coming).