Washington fine-tunes its options for boosting electric vehicle sales

It’ll be up to lawmakers to decide which ones will work best. A proposal for automakers to sell cars directly to customers is sparking controversy.

By: - October 25, 2023 2:15 pm

Washington officials are preparing a long-term strategy for boosting sales of electric vehicle and installing charging outlets in many more locations. This unit is on the campus of the state Capitol. (Bill Lucia/Washington State Standard)

Susan Baird-Joshi spent many hours the last few months helping draw up Washington’s ambitious plan for rapidly electrifying cars and trucks in the state.

As a member of the Electric Vehicle Advisory Council, the data scientist weighed in on dozens of ideas considered in drafting the long-term strategy to accelerate purchases of battery-powered vehicles – a major plank in the state’s climate agenda.

When the panel pored through recommendations in the mostly finished product last week, she had a final request for the coterie of state officials responsible for delivering the Transportation Electrification Strategy to the governor and lawmakers on Dec. 1.

“Insist that every recommendation be funded,” said Baird-Joshi, principal of the consulting firm CaliberA. “The Legislature has a habit of passing legislation that says do this, do that, do something else if funding is available. These are not optional things. These are for the health, safety and welfare of everyone in the state. We must be very clear about that.”

Leah Missik, senior policy manager for Climate Solutions, echoed the sentiment of her advisory council colleague.

“While we have done a lot of good things in Washington state, it is not enough,” she said. “If we are going to meet our climate targets more needs to happen and here are our recommendations to do that. These are not ‘nice to have’, they are ‘need to haves’.”

Some concerns over the plan have to do with more than money.

One of the most controversial suggestions is to allow consumers to buy vehicles directly from automakers, rather than through dealerships. Under current state law, only Tesla qualifies to sell directly to customers in Washington. Authors of the report contend if all automakers could do so, it would quicken the pace of EV sales. Car dealers are strongly opposed.

Final lap

The report is intended to be the state’s blueprint for ensuring electric vehicle incentives and battery charging infrastructure are accessible and available throughout Washington.

The Electric Vehicle Coordinating Council, with members from multiple state entities, including the departments of Transportation, Ecology and Commerce, is preparing the final version. Members of the public can comment on the proposals through Monday, Oct. 30. 

The report contains options for Washington to attain two legislatively set goals. 

One of those goals, contained in the Move Ahead Washington transportation package passed last year, is for all passenger cars and light-duty vehicles “sold, purchased or registered” in the state to be electric starting with the model year 2030.

Switching to battery-powered vehicles quickly is critical to achieving the other lofty target – shaving the state’s overall greenhouse gas emissions by 45% below 1990 levels by 2030. This means going from 102.1 million metric tons of emissions in 2019, the last fully-reported year, to around 50 million by the start of the next decade.

The draft electrification strategy recommends actions lawmakers should pursue in the 2024 legislative session if the state wants to try to attain the goals.

Among them are making e-bike, car and truck incentives larger and more available, funneling additional dollars toward electrifying public buses, and launching a “social leasing program” to enable individuals below an income threshold to lease EVs for more affordable monthly rates.

The strategy document also says the state should require charging outlets at new multi-family developments, install them in public light poles, and provide hook-ups for big rigs at ports and other industrial areas.

Dealer dilemma

At a public hearing earlier this month, dealership owners and representatives of the Washington State Auto Dealers Association argued against the recommendation that automakers should be able to sell vehicles directly to consumers. Locally-owned businesses would lose sales and see connections with their communities weakened, they said.

“It will be bad for customers, bad for the community, ” said Matthew Phillips, CEO of Car Pros Automotive Group which is a major Kia dealership in the Puget Sound region..

He and other auto dealers said they, not manufacturers, offer the best means of expanding EV sales in underserved communities because of the services they provide car buyers.

That elicited a strong response from Paula Sardinas, the council co-chair and a founder of the Washington Build Back Black Alliance.

“Black and brown folks struggle when they go into a car dealership if they can even get a loan,” Sardinas said.

Direct sales should be available as long as customers are assured, at a minimum, of the ability to test drive a vehicle and receive financing options, she said.

“What we’re talking about here is true equity, not for some, not for most, not for those who can afford an expensive lobbyist but for everyone,” she said.

Vicki Giles Fabre, vice president of the dealers association, sharply disagreed.

She said as a person of color with 24 years in the industry that she’s had the “exact opposite experience” and “adamantly and stridently opposed Paula Sardinas’ position.”

Sardinas, in response, said the point of the recommendations is “making sure every person who wants to get a car can. We’re looking for a program that is equitable for all.”

The proposed change in how vehicles are sold would require legislative action. In 2021, a bill backed by the state Department of Commerce to expand direct sales by automakers did not pass.

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Jerry Cornfield
Jerry Cornfield

Jerry Cornfield joined the Standard after 20 years covering Olympia statehouse news for The Everett Herald. Earlier in his career, he worked for daily and weekly papers in Santa Barbara, California.