Newsom hypes 1 millionth electric vehicle sold in California, even if the details are “squishy”

Gov. Gavin Newsom celebrated a milestone Friday — the sale of the 1 millionth electric vehicle in California.

Newsom visited Michael Macias, a Central Valley resident, in Stockton, earlier in the week to film a promotional video, and in a press statement Friday to unveil it, called him “the owner of the millionth electric vehicle sold in California.”

But some of the details were misleading.

Administration officials conceded that Macias bought his electric car, a Volkswagen ID.4, nearly three months ago, on Dec. 10. And two months ago, by Dec. 31, there were already 1,054,095 electric vehicles that had been sold in the state, according to the California Energy Commission.

Asked how they knew that Macias, in blue-collar Stockton — rather than a high-income tech industry worker in Silicon Valley or film industry executive in Los Angeles — was exactly the 1 millionth person to buy an electric car in California when hundreds are sold every day across the state, Newsom lieutenants said they weren’t certain.

“This was based on DMV data analysis,” said Patty Monahan, a commissioner with the California Energy Commission. “So it’s when the car was registered. We recognize there’s some squishiness to this, but it’s based on an analysis of the DMV records.”

At a mid-morning news conference, leaders of state environmental and energy agencies said the milestone shows how the state’s policies to promote clean vehicles are leading the nation. Afterall, they noted, California has roughly 10% of the nation’s population, and 40% of its electric vehicles.

They also used the occasion to promote the state budget Newsom rolled out last month with billions in new incentives for electric vehicles, emphasizing that its proposals will make it easier for middle-class and working people of all backgrounds to purchase electric cars — not just wealthy white Bay Area residents who can afford Teslas and other pricy vehicles.

“This really is an important and exciting milestone,” said Liane Randolph, chairwoman of the California Air Resources Board. “It’s a confirmation that our policies, programs and incentives are working. It indicates we have turned a corner.”

Some experts raised eyebrows about the fuzzy timing the 1 millionth vehicle and the fact that the buyer the state chose to feature just happened to mirror the demographic message the governor is trying to promote in his budget.

“This sounds like a PR event,” said James Sweeney, a professor of management science and engineering at Stanford University, who specializes in energy issues. “But 1 million electric vehicles is a significant change in California’s fleet. It has established the viability of electric vehicles as a mode of transportation and an industry.”

Despite what may have been a ham-fisted attempt to manipulate the media and the public on Friday, there is no question that California has made major gains in moving away from gasoline-powered vehicles.

Driven by efforts to curb smog that began in the 1960s during former Gov. Ronald Reagan’s tenure, the state has adopted the toughest air pollution rules in the nation for cars, trucks and other vehicles for generations, dramatically reducing smog.

Over the past 20 years, sometimes in fits and starts, California governors from Gray Davis to Arnold Schwarzenegger to Jerry Brown and now Newsom have promoted electric vehicles by tightening emissions standards, and offering rebates, tax credits, even access to carpool lanes for people who buy electric vehicles.

Now, 12.4% of cars sold in California, or one in eight, is electric. California has 43 companies that manufacture electric vehicles or electric vehicle equipment, led by Tesla, and electric vehicles are the state’s largest manufactured export, with a value of $5.6 billion.

The #2 top-selling passenger vehicle in California in 2021 was the Tesla Model Y, behind only the Toyota Camry.

California motorists can receive up to $9,500 in rebates when they buy electric vehicles, spelled out in detail at https://driveclean.ca.gov

But the state is still far short of Brown’s goal of 5 million electric vehicles by 2030. And experts say it needs more chargers. One state study found a need for 1.2 million, and currently there are 79,023, according to state estimates. 

California’s greenhouse gas emissions have fallen 14% since they peaked in 2004. But to reach the state goal of a 40% reduction from 1990 levels by 2030, experts say more electric vehicles will need to hit the road, like the one Macias purchased, because transportation is responsible for 39% of the state’s greenhouse gases.

“It was pretty awesome,” said Macias’ stepfather, Billy Lemos, of Newsom’s visit to their home. “All the neighbors were watching. The governor was looking around checking things out and then my son took him for a drive.”

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