November 28, 2020


SACRAMENTO — Maya Katz-Ali said she never thought she would be able to afford an electric car. She thought it was something unattainable, something for the elite.

And in many ways, Katz-Ali is the opposite of a typical electric-car buyer in California: She’s 26, a woman and a person of color, and she doesn’t earn a six-figure salary. The Oakland native expected to drive her 1992 Volvo until it died.

That all changed last month, when Katz-Ali traded in her car for a new Honda Clarity plug-in electric hybrid with a fraction of the Volvo’s emissions. She bought it with the help of a state subsidy program.

“There’s lots of ideas that you have to be of a certain income bracket to be able to even think about” an electric car, Katz-Ali said. “It’s not just a Tesla thing. It’s not just a higher-class, higher-income thing.”

Electric-car advocates say her initial perception speaks to a diversity problem that the state must solve to reach Gov. Gavin Newsom’s goal of banning the sale of new gas-powered cars starting in 2035.

California drivers who buy electric vehicles overwhelmingly fit a narrow demographic profile. Most are male, white or Asian American, and between the ages of 30 and 49. The majority earn more than $100,000 a year and live in expensive coastal areas.

That’s according to data The Chronicle analyzed of buyers who received electric car rebates from the state Air Resources Board, California’s air-quality agency. The rebates, which can total several thousand dollars, are available to people whose income is below a certain level and have not received earlier rebates.

About half of Californians who buy new electric cars receive rebates from the agency, so the data doesn’t include all buyers. However, it is the largest public source of demographic information about electric-car buyers in the state and is a detailed snapshot of the market.

The stereotype of “Silicon Valley dudes buying Teslas” is part perception and part reality, said Lucy McKenzie, a consultant who co-leads the San Francisco chapter of Women of EVs, a group for women who work in the industry.

“There’s widely been a view of electric vehicles as toys for wealthier folks,” she said. “There is a lot of work in California going on to try and highlight that that is not the case.”

Newsom signed an executive order this fall setting the 2035 deadline, the first mandate of its kind in the country. The mandate applies only to new vehicle sales; drivers will still be able to buy and sell used gas cars.

Still, the deadline is ambitious: Only about 6% of new cars sold in the state now are zero emission.

“To get to that (2035) goal, you pretty much have to start getting to everybody who buys cars,” said Ken Kurani, a researcher at the UC Davis Institute of Transportation Studies. “We need to be moving very rapidly. We do need to get out of that narrow band of people.”

Getting there will require the