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Education is key for the EV revolution's next phase, even in Rivian's backyard

A white electric vehicle is being charged in a parking lot.
George Walker IV
AP file
Illinois lawmakers passed the Climate and Equitable Jobs Act in 2021. That law sets a goal to get 1 million electric vehicles on the road by 2030 and includes funding to build EV infrastructure across the state and provide rebates to customers for electric vehicle purchases.

There are now over 100,000 electric vehicles on the road in Illinois. Only 900,000 more to go.

The state’s goal of getting 1 million EVs on the road by 2030 is a lofty one. And to hit it, even communities like Bloomington-Normal that have a high EV IQ — thanks to Rivian and a resurrected EVTown initiative — will need more education and hand-holding.

“It’s still a long way to go from 100,000 [EVs] to a million,” said Brian Urbaszewski, director of environmental health at the Chicago-based Respiratory Health Association. “We need 10 times as many vehicles on the roads, and 2030 is not that far away.”

Urbaszewski said progress is being made.

In McLean County, there are now over 1,400 EVs on the road, up 63% from a year ago, according to data from the Illinois secretary of state’s office. And it’s not just the Rivian effect; Champaign, Sangamon and Peoria counties all reported over 62% increases in EVs in 2023, slightly outpacing the statewide growth rate (60%).

Rivian’s arrival in Normal in 2016 certainly helped. The stealthy EV startup came to a community that literally dubbed itself EVTown five years earlier, when the plant in west Normal was still owned by Mitsubishi Motors. Mitsubishi left, and EVTown went dormant.

Bloomington-Normal EV owner Tricia Fazzini and others resurrected theEVTown Steering Committee in 2022 to acknowledge what the community has done to advance EV ownership. They also continue to educate residents on new developments.

Fazzini said partnering with the Multicultural Leadership Program has allowed the EVTown Steering Committee to further its goals throughEV exhibits and owner testimonial videos.

“They [committee members] all have different knowledge on different aspects of EVs,” Fazzini said. “We’ve been able to serve other organizations with panelists from our committee to talk about different issues related to EVs or the things that we are doing in Bloomington-Normal.”

Two biggest concerns

According to Fazzini, the two factors that continue to keep people from buying EVs are the cost and anxiety over range — or how far someone can drive without having to charge again.

Educating people on these two concerns is important to the EVTown leaders, Fazzini said.

“Electric vehicles are generally more expensive to buy upfront and that's what people are looking at when they are concerned about the price,” Fazzini said.

Fazzini said the benefit is decreased maintenance costs over the long term. “What we need to educate people more about is the long-term total cost of ownership," she said.

At Rivian, there are two discount programs for employees. One provides special offers on low-mileage used Rivian demo vehicles for employees and friends and family. Another more recent one offers an employee discount on the R1 truck or SUV.

“We definitely want to get our employees the opportunity to drive our vehicles,” said Tim Fallon, Rivian’s vice president for operations in Normal. “With (new models) R2, R3, R3X, that’s coming into a price point which really opens it up not just for our employees but for really the world and the general masses. We’re looking forward to that.”

Auto dealer's perspective

Some EV manufacturers, like Rivian, sell to consumers directly. But auto dealers still have a stake in how quickly EV adoption unfolds.

O’Brien Auto Team President Ryan Gremore said customers have been challenged with deciding whether buying an EV is possible for them given the advantages and disadvantages.

“When you have limited range, limited charging access infrastructure nationally that’s not totally in place, I think those challenges cause people to be reluctant on buying an EV,” Gremore said. "So most people say I'm not ready for that. Now, if I have multiple cars, I can have an EV. And then I can have my long-distance car. But that's not financially feasible for a lot of the American population."

More public money is going toward charging. Illinois is getting $148 million from the federal government through 2027 to build charging stations along major interstates and highways.

Urbaszewski said building more charging stations combined with efficient batteries will begin to decrease range anxiety. Plus, most EV charging is done at home, though that's tricky for, say, renters without a garage.

“This is a long process. It takes a while to get the money to the people who are building the stations, and it takes a while to build the stations,” Urbaszewski said. “A lot of those spigots just turned on in less than the last year. So, about a year from now there will be more [EV charging stations] out there.”

Chargers aren’t cheap. Gremore said his new Genesis dealership under construction near Fort Jesse Road at Veterans Parkway in Normal will have super-fast Level 3 chargers, which can recharge a vehicle from as low as 5% up to 80% in 15 minutes.

Those are expensive, he said, about 40 times more than the slower Level 2 charger you might see in a person’s home that will take hours to replenish a vehicle.

“We’re investing heavily in providing resources for our consumers to use if they want to purchase an EV. But you’re spending a lot of money on 4% to 5% of your business,” Gremore said. “But this is the government forcing the trend, and we have to follow suit.”

State government could go further, with some arguing that stricter emissions standards are needed. In California, all new passenger cars, trucks, and SUVs sold in California must be zero emissions by 2035. To date, 17 states have also adopted all or part of California’s low-emission and zero-emission vehicle regulations. It’s an idea that’s surfaced in Illinois too.

Brian Urbaszewski with the Respiratory Health Association said new emissions standards would force manufacturers to provide more EVs than they currently are.

“We would need to adopt that rule to ensure that people actually have a choice and are able to buy the vehicles,” Urbaszewski said. “They’re not just going to the other states that have adopted this requirement that manufacturers sell more electric vehicles in their state. We need to have the vehicles here.”

Legacy automakers have struggled to provide more EVs for consumers in part because of uncertainty about demand compared with traditional gas-powered alternatives.

Gremore said it’s important for the state to listen to signals on demand.

“If the people want it, then the people should have it. If the people don’t want it, I’m not sure the state needs to ram it so hard,” Gremore said. “We're here to support our clients, in whatever mode of transportation they see fit, as long as we can get it. If they want one [vehicle] with helicopter propellers, we may struggle until someone manufactures that.”

WGLT correspondent Colin Hardman contributed to this report.

Evy York was a student reporting intern WGLT during the spring 2024 semester.