Want More EV Advocates? Focus On Educating Locally

The federal government is committed to supporting electric vehicle (EV) adoption. With measures like the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) and the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) bringing new funding and opportunities, attention on EVs and charging infrastructure is at an all-time high. Fortified with these federal actions, state and local governments (SLGs), as well as utilities, have a prime opportunity to invest in what might be the most crucial component of sustained, equitable, mainstream EV adoption: educating the market.

Even with more than a decade of market growth and industry advancements in the rearview mirror, the barriers to getting more EVs on the road have generally stayed the same. Common talking points focus on high upfront vehicle costs, limited electric range, and convenient and reliable access to charging. We can add concerns about equitable access to the benefits of transportation electrification to this list. So, how can education help to reduce or eliminate these barriers?

It really comes down to comfort. Increased EV adoption requires American consumers and fleet managers to become more comfortable with new technology. And while that technology does require some behavioral changes, education can help put those changes into context, along with the associated benefits. For example, an EV may take all night to charge at home but taking advantage of a lower off-peak utility rate means significant cost savings compared to fueling a gas car.

Comfort is often synonymous with familiarity, and there is a high level of correlation between familiarity with EVs and the likelihood of buying one. According to an April 2022 Consumer Reports survey, more than two-thirds of Americans who “would definitely” buy or lease EVs if they were to acquire a vehicle today claim to be “very” or “somewhat” familiar with EVs. Some of this familiarity comes through exposure to friends and neighbors with EVs, as EV drivers are reliably the most vocal cheerleaders and ambassadors for the technology.

Today, however, less than 10% of Americans are “very” familiar with the fundamentals of driving an EV. We can assume the percentage of consumers who are comfortable with the idea of owning an EV is even lower. This leaves a lot of room for improvement, particularly through education. By prioritizing education programs and taking advantage of federal funding to build these programs, public and private entities can more efficiently and effectively drive EV adoption across their communities.

Make it local

Every region, state, and local area is different, not only geographically and demographically, but also in terms of EV adoption, market forces, and even politics. This variability is one of the reasons grassroots education and outreach are often more powerful than national campaigns. Local efforts can be tailored to truly speak to the community and are more successful in directly engaging stakeholders, especially when those doing the educating come from the same community.

The DRIVE Electric USA program is one example of the local focus in action. This multi-state, multi-year, U.S. Department of Energy-funded project builds on decades of collaboration among Clean Cities coalitions across the country. DRIVE Electric USA seeks to “engage individuals, utilities, legislators, dealerships and others towards removing adoption barriers and accelerating plug-in electric vehicle use in our states.” A priority area for the program is consumer education through local chapter development.

Jonathan Overly is the Executive Director of East Tennessee Clean Fuels and one of the DRIVE Electric USA program leaders. The lessons Jonathan and other leads have gleaned over their many years supporting clean transportation at the local level pointed to several tenants that come through in the DRIVE Electric USA program:

Get those butts in seats! It’s more effective to allow consumers and fleet managers to experience EVs for themselves. Most individuals walk away from ride-and-drive events with an appreciation for how EVs are fun to drive and high-performing.

Share the stories, whether successes or challenges. An apprehensive consumer will learn so much more about what it’s like to drive electric if they can hear from someone with experience. For example, a seasoned EV driver can explain that stopping to charge while on a road trip doesn’t usually add much time when those stops are synched up with meal and restroom breaks.

Seek to engage underserved communities, including rural and urban areas. Transportation electrification has the potential to greatly improve local air quality and result in other benefits to the user and local economy, so increasing access to EVs will only magnify those benefits.

These recommendations should carry through to any educational effort designed to increase awareness and grow the EV market. Overly notes, “I’ve heard from many EV owners in Tennessee and in other states that engaging community members through activities like ride-and-drive events removes some of the pressure from dealership encounters and allows them to ask the questions they want, get honest answers, and experience the fun of an EV. I’ve personally experienced this many times when allowing others to drive my EV. Arming potential EV drivers with first-hand knowledge gets them more comfortable with the prospect of owning one themselves.”

Don’t go it alone

As a DOE initiative with 14 participating states (and counting) and more than 50 project advisors, the DRIVE Electric USA program highlights the power of partnerships and collaboration at the national, state, and local levels. Even in an industry as nascent as transportation electrification, there is no need to start from scratch. SLGs and utilities taking steps to place a greater focus on education should look to successful peer programs, informational resources, and established forums for dialogue. One recently launched example is EV CO, an EV-focused education initiative from the state of Colorado. Much of the information highlighted via EV CO pulls from existing resources, such as the DOE Alternative Fuels Data Center and the local utility’s EV search tool.

While there are still barriers to overcome, we shouldn’t underestimate the importance of those personal experiences with EVs. Overly adds, “If we want to effect change in this way, establishing more local EV clubs or chapters is a fairly small undertaking that reaps huge rewards.” He notes that during the first year of the DRIVE Electric USA project, efforts across the partner states directly reached approximately 16,000 Americans. That sounds like a great starting point.


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