DAVID GREENE, HOST:
California's governor, Jerry Brown, is hosting an international climate summit this week. For years, California has really struck its own path when it comes to cutting carbon pollution. But in spite of California's ambitious goals, car emissions are actually increasing. Here's Lauren Sommer from member station KQED.
LAUREN SOMMER, BYLINE: Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of customers who walk into Concord Chevrolet in the East Bay area. People like Pablo Chang-Castillo.
PABLO CHANG-CASTILLO: I'm getting a green vehicle, an electric vehicle.
SOMMER: A brand-new, black Chevy Bolt. It goes about 230 miles on a charge. He says using electricity instead of gas will save him money.
CHANG-CASTILLO: Like, I think gas is in the past, and I think that this is the future.
SOMMER: But the majority of customers are like Mark Bauhs.
MARK BAUHS: My wife just told me her car is too small, so I need a bigger car.
SOMMER: He's here to test drive a mid-size SUV.
BAUHS: I haven't quite moved over to electric cars yet. It definitely has never crossed my mind for a family car.
SOMMER: But here's the thing - to reach California's ambitious climate goals, every new car sold in the state will have to be plug-in by 2040. And right now, electric and plug-in hybrid cars are only 6 percent of sales.
GIL TAL: The main issue is most of the Californians are not aware of the benefit and opportunity of buying plug-in electric cars.
SOMMER: Gil Tal directs the Plug-In Hybrid & Electric Vehicle Research Center at UC Davis. He says, in California, electric cars are cleaner than gas cars because the electricity comes from growing amounts of solar and wind power. So to get them on roads, California passed a mandate that requires automakers to offer zero-emission vehicles in the state. The goal is 5 million by 2030. But that's only half the battle. People actually have to buy them. And Tal says surveys show that most people don't know much about electric cars, and they generally don't learn much at car dealerships.
TAL: A lot of the purchase process happens ahead of showing up.
SOMMER: They've already made up their mind. So the electric car conversion has to happen earlier. One good way could be advertising.
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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: With instant acceleration, electric cars are more fun to drive and more affordable than ever.
SOMMER: But that's not an ad. It's actually a public service announcement that Volkswagen has to run as penance for their emissions cheating scandal. Chances are you've never seen an ad for an electric car from a major car company.
STEVEN MAJOROS: This is a very difficult segment. It's a difficult product proposition.
SOMMER: Steven Majoros is marketing director for Chevrolet cars and crossovers. He says so far they haven't run a national TV spot for the Chevy Bolt, just regional ads.
MAJOROS: Let's just be realistic. How big is the EV market? In the United States - right? - it's about 1, 1.5 percent of the market. So we have to always balance market demand, market size with how much we, quote, unquote, you know, "advertise."
SOMMER: That's a trend across automakers. According to one analysis, major car companies only spend a fraction on advertising electric cars as compared with their best-selling models. Chevy is counting on word of mouth.
MAJOROS: This is a way better experience for most people than a normal internal combustion engine.
SOMMER: But not many people are getting that experience, and trucks and SUVs dominate the market. So the switch from gas to electric might take a push of some kind, like high gas prices. Whatever it takes, California is hoping every driver comes around - and soon. For NPR News, I'm Lauren Sommer in San Francisco.
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