How gasoline ‘superusers’ can help clean up California’s air

A big way to get more electric vehicles on the road involves convincing gasoline “superusers” to switch to EVs, a new report released Thursday found.

The study by Coltura, a nonprofit organization that promotes an end to gasoline consumption, took a close look at the people whose vehicles use huge amounts of gasoline.

Thursday’s study found that 10% of California drivers consume 28% of the gasoline used in the state. These are the superusers, each of whom burns an estimated 1,260 gallons a year, compared to others’ 354 gallons.

Coltura said that at every income level, those superusers spend a bigger proportion of their income on fuel and maintenance than those who need less gasoline.

And, the report said, “at below median income levels, the difference is the greatest.”

It found 56% of superuser households earn below the state’s median income level of about $100,000. Those families spend about 15% of that income on gasoline alone and a total of 24% on gasoline plus vehicle maintenance and repairs.

The superusers are also more susceptible to gasoline price spikes such as those that stung drivers last year. California’s gasoline prices have been falling–they averaged $4.82 a gallon Monday, according to AAA, but they were $5.91 a year ago. They peaked at $6.44 last June.

Superusers tend to drive more. The average EV driver goes about 10,200 miles a year, while the superuser averages 24,000 miles annually.

Link between gasoline consumption and income

The superusers tend to live in more rural and less wealthy areas, where driving longer distances is common and people are less likely to afford electric vehicles.

A Bee analysis matched zero-emission vehicle registrations from the California Department of Motor Vehicles and census data showing income by zip code.

In the state’s poorest zip codes, where median household incomes were less than $50,000, there were about six electric vehicles for every 1,000 residents. In the state’s wealthiest zip codes, where median household incomes topped $200,000, there were about 94 electric vehicles per 1,000 residents.

One of the biggest challenges facing would-be electric car owners without much money is the lack of a robust market for used electric cars, said Gil Tal, director of the UC Davis Plug-In Hybrid and Electric Vehicle Research Center, last fall.

“Electric cars are all new cars, and the used car market is just starting,” he said. “If you just compare where electric cars are to where new cars are, you will see that it’s almost one to one.”

Some new electric cars are designed to have an affordable Manufacturer’s Suggested Retail Price, but even those are out of reach for families earning less than $75,000 a year. “If you look at the new Chevy Bolt, I think that the MSRP is $26,000, at the low end,” Tal said. Demand for the no-frills versions of the Chevy Bolt and the similar Nissan Leaf is high, and dealer markups are common.

As electric cars become the norm, the used car market for them should become more robust. The supply of affordable used cars could start to approach the demand, pushing prices lower. Car manufacturers are “investing billions,” Tal said. “It just takes time.” The state of California is also pushing hard to encourage electric car production and make electric cars more affordable.

Switching to electric vehicles

Converting superusers to more efficient transportation is a crucial goal for state officials eager to reduce California’s greenhouse gas emissions.

The state’s Air Resources Board has called for a 50% reduction in gasoline use by 2030, and says “mobile sources” are the biggest contributor to the pollution. Gov. Gavin Newsom has directed the state to require that by 2035 all new cars and passenger trucks sold in California be zero-emission vehicles

But the California Energy Commission forecast is for only a 10% reduction in gasoline demand.

If the superusers all switched to electric vehicles by 2030, the 50% goal could be reached if 9 million drivers switched first to EVs, Coltura said.

The superusers spend about an estimated $20 billion a year on gasoline. Making their switch to EVs a priority “maximizes the amount of money redirected from gasoline spending to spending on EVs, EV charging, and cleaner energy – which further accelerates the EV transition,” the report said.

The report was somewhat optimistic.

It surveyed superusers and found they “generally have positive attitudes towards EVs.” About one-fourth said they intended to replace their gas vehicle with an EV in the next month. Three-fourths said they’d get an EV within the next four years.

And 39% of superusers drive cars that have similar EV models available. Of the 54% who drive trucks and large SUVs, the report said “more electric models are on the near horizon.”