Electric cars may not find road to minority communities

Who will own the electric car?

A new report on electric cars released by The Greenlining Institute — “Electric Vehicles: Who’s Left Stranded?” — says the cost of the vehicles, plus the potential inconvenience of charging them, could keep these cars out of minority communities that have some of the worst smog problems in the state.

“There’s the message and there’s the messenger,” said the Greenlining Institute’s C.C. Song, lead author on the report. “The marketing just doesn’t reach to these communities. People of color, growing up, the cool cars are the Mercedes, the Lexus,” she added.

The report calls on companies selling electric cars to do more marketing to minorities, for government policymakers to make information more easily available about the benefits of the electric cars and for environmental groups to target minority communities that cast pollution as a social justice issue.

Song said that this came home to her recently when she was talking to a woman in her late 40s, an affluent professional involved in the environmental movement. But she thought of electric vehicles as something out of her price range, but was surprised that an all-electric Nissan Leaf would cost $33,000, with tax breaks making the real cost closer to $20,000.

To some, an economic bias in electric vehicle sales may be found in a bill widely supported by environmental groups. That bill, SB 209 by state Sen. Ellen Corbett, D-San Leandro, was signed by Gov. Jerry Brown on July 25. It is designed to make sure that condominium developments offer sufficient electric charging access for residents who are asking for it. There’s nothing in the bill, however, about rental units or apartment complexes.

Song said that economic and racial issues are factors in the study, For example, the awareness of the advantages of electric and hybrid vehicles lags among middle-class people of color in California, where whites make up 42 percent of the population but are 69 percent of hybrid buyers.

The electric vehicle market is still tiny. Through the first six months of this year, combined sales of the Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt nationwide totaled fewer than 7,000 cars.

So far, the sales figures seem to be following the trends established by hybrids. According to 2009 research from the federal Department of Transportation, whites bought 73 percent of electric vehicles sold in California. Ninety-two percent of these cars were sold to people making $75,000 or more a year.

To supporters of electric and hybrid cars, clean and efficient vehicles have a cool factor that trumps the economic arguments. In general, these cars came with a higher initial sticker price than comparable all-gas models, with the owner making up much of the difference in fuel costs over several years.

Song noted that it’s a mistake to equate “minority” with “lower income,” noting that the disparity is mainly seen among middle and upper middle class minority residents. This disparity is particularly seen in the growing Latino middle class. Latinos make up 39 percent of California residents but comprise only 19 percent of hybrid buyers.

Cost, not philosophy, appears to be a factor here: A Los Angeles Times/University of Southern California survey from last year found that 72 percent of Asian Americans and 85 percent of Latinos said that they were very concerned about air pollution.

That same poll found that about half of these groups said they were concerned about global warming. Among whites, some 61 were concerned about air pollution and 27 percent said they were worried about global warming.

The Greenlining report projects that by 2015, a million electric vehicles will have been sold nationwide, and suggests that it’s imperative to get minority communities engaged in purchasing. California is the single biggest market for cars — there are seven million vehicles registered in Los Angeles County alone — and also has several cities that rank among the worst for smog in the country.

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