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Surprising number of EV owners switch back to gas power, study says

The study looked at owners in California specifically and found home charging was a huge factor in people dropping the EV lifestyle.

For nearly one-fifth of EV owners, it was one-and-done.

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As so much of the world works to pivot away from fossil fuels and the internal-combustion engine, a new study from the University of California, Davis, published in the journal Nature Energy last week, showed some concerning signs for what the auto industry still needs to get right. According to this study, which looked at California EV owners specifically between 2015-2019, 18% of electric vehicle owners switched back to a gas-powered car. For plug-in hybrid owners, 20% of them flipped back to a car solely powered by an engine.

The major takeaway from the EV flip-flopping lands in the lap of charging -- specifically at-home charging. The lack of reliable Level 2 charging at home (that's a 240-volt plug) was a major factor leading to EV "discontinuance," as the researchers called it. That makes sense. If you don't have a place to charge reliably, it makes it a lot harder to enjoy the benefits associated with an EV, including an overall lower cost of ownership. Public charging infrastructure remains just OK, with many stations down for maintenance, or simply not close enough to drivers, even in California, where chargers are more common than the rest of the US. And charging times at a public station still aren't on par with gassing up a car.

According to the research, about half of the respondents who bought another EV had access to Level 2 charging, compared to the 30% who dumped the electric lifestyle, but had a proper plug at home. The research found owners were 53% less likely to buy another EV if they did not have access to convenient, at-home charging. Essentially, it was a coin toss over whether an EV owner either stuck with it or returned to gas pumps.

To be fair to automakers and charging companies, things are getting much better, especially compared to the middle of the last decade when researchers acquired data. At-home charging installation is becoming easier to come by, and some automakers will even bundle it with a new EV purchase. Today's EVs also charge quicker than their predecessors. As for the plug-in hybrid "discontinuance," it likely highlights the fact no automaker ever really figured out how to sell car buyers on the technology.

This decade appears poised for an EV transformation, despite this data, as more automakers get serious about selling battery-electric cars and charging infrastructure. And if tax credits or rebates come back into the mix in a big way, it's hard to see EV adoption retract, rather than grow.