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Published on August 14th, 2016 | by Michael Barnard


California: A Case Study In HOV Lane EV Policy, & Future Possibilities

August 14th, 2016 by  

fig1California has long been one of the leading jurisdictions supporting electric car use. Its policies, incentives, and practices are studied globally. A key policy is its high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lane single-occupancy access program. This enables cleaner vehicles of various types to share the HOV lanes with multi-passenger vehicles, rewarding electric and other clean vehicle owners in the same way that carpoolers are rewarded. But this program ends in 2019, about the time that the number of Tesla Model 3s, Chevy Bolts, and other pure electric vehicles starts to really ramp up. What will happen to the program and HOV lanes in California at that time?

The program will likely keep going, but many categories of vehicles currently allowed to use the HOV lanes (such as plug-in hybrids and compressed natural gas vehicles) will probably be relegated to the slow lanes with internal-combustion-engine, single-occupancy vehicles. And HOV lane rules and coverage will likely change as well, with more three-occupant-minimum zones and possibly two lanes each way dedicated to high-occupancy and electric-only vehicles.


As always, it’s worth looking at the actual rules. It all comes down to various coloured stickers which drivers place on their bumpers. These stickers give them HOV lane privileges, and there are different numbers of them available.

There are an unlimited number of white zero-emission stickers available for electric-only, hydrogen, or compressed natural gas vehicles. Have an electric-only vehicle? You’re going to be able to get a sticker. However, they expire January 1, 2019, under the current rule structure.

green-hov-lane-sticker_100389293_mThere are a maximum of 85,000 green stickers for good plug-in hybrids, a class known as advanced technology partial zero emission vehicles, and that many have been given out. No more tickets will be provided without another extension. The limit was extended a couple of times. They also expire on January 1, 2019. This is explicitly a transitional program, not an end-state program.

HOV-Lane-Yellow-Sticker-2 The program that provided yellow stickers to basic hybrids such as Priuses ended in 2011, relegating them back to the status they had in 2004, the last time I drove one in California.

What assumptions can we make about increases in electric car numbers on California roads? Let’s assume:

  • The Tesla Model 3 will ship roughly on time and Musk will hit more rather than fewer of his volume targets.
  • About 50% of pre-orders were from the USA, and California buys about 50% of electric cars in the USA, so if 400,000 Model 3s ship in two years starting at the end of 2017, there will be about 100,000 more Model 3s alone on California roads by the end of 2019.
  • Other Teslas will also be shipping. Given that 50,000 Model S sedans alone were sold in 2015 in the USA, 100,000 premium-class cars sell annually in the USA, and then the Model X likely sales numbers, it’s reasonable to assume another 100,000 other Teslas might be on California roads in 2019.
  • Tesla is leading the electric market, but isn’t the only player. The Chevy Bolt is also pure electric and shipping in 2017. Other manufacturers have committed to multiple pure electric vehicles in 2017 through 2019. Let’s assume that’s another 100,000 potential pure electric vehicles could be on the road in California in 2019.

That makes potentially 300,000 more pure electric, zero-emission vehicles on California roads in 2019, all of which would have access to the HOV lanes under the current rules. You can certainly quibble about how soon and how fast Tesla will be able to ship the Model 3, and how many of the other manufacturers will be out with real electric cars, but even at 200,000 to 250,000 new cars, that’s a lot more vehicles with HOV lane access. There are already about 100,000 pure electric cars registered in California, so the total number in 2019 is going to be in the 300,000 to 400,000 range quite easily.

It’s useful to realize that California has about 28 million cars registered today for the 39 million people who live there. Assuming the usual growth of 4% annually which matches the roughly 2 million new cars registered in 2015, this would easily reach 30 million by 2019. This would put pure electric vehicles in the 1% to 1.3% range of total vehicles on the road, and approaching 10% of all new cars sold annually.

What this table tells us is that pure electrics are already at 1.7% of new registrations with a huge leap seen in 2013, making a significant increase quite possible. Pure electrics are already displacing partial electrics in California. Hybrid registrations are already dropping, but weren’t actually impacted by the HOV rule changes in 2011, interestingly. Plug-in hybrids are also dropping. Fully electric cars might be more than double the number of transitional plug-in hybrids and hydrogen cars allowed today.

California is committed to zero-emission vehicles. The HOV lane access is part of the incentive program for drivers to shift to zero-emission vehicles. The rule allowing non-plugin hybrids has already been sunset. That leads to the following being the most likely next set of policy changes:

  • California probably will not extend HOV access for plug-in hybrids past January 1, 2019.
  • California may or may not extend access for hydrogen vehicles, but it’s irrelevant as there won’t be any to speak of.
  • Compressed natural gas vehicles probably will be excluded from the revised white sticker program. Greenhouse gas–emitting vehicles that aren’t mass transit shouldn’t be given preferential access, and while it might have seemed like a good idea years ago when pollution was perceived to be the biggest issue, it won’t be seen that way as 2019 approaches.
  • California will come up with a new timeline for access to HOV lanes for pure electrics assuming numbers in the range indicated. I would think that they would be looking forward to a time when over 10% or 20% of vehicles would be fully electric and wondering what to do then. I suspect a five-year planning timeframe would likely be applied, so the pure electrics would be extended to January 1, 2024 — although, change is expected so rapidly in California that they might set it to 2022 instead.

And of course a confounding factor in this is that ridesharing is getting cheaper, more ubiquitous, and by definition has access to dual-occupancy HOV lanes. Rideshare companies are offering multi-rider carpooling offerings which lower the price further and drive up occupancy. At present, rules for access to HOV lanes require two and sometimes three occupants. If this increase in HOV lane access continues, California will have to make some changes and has some interesting options:

  • They could allow only zero-emission vehicles in HOV lanes regardless of occupants. This would turn HOV lanes into ZEV lanes — although, buses would undoubtedly be grandfathered.
  • They could increase HOV occupancy requirements to three across the board. That gets rid of Uber/Lyft with one passenger, and makes rideshare carpooling even more attractive.
  • They could decide that single-occupancy, zero-emissions vehicles don’t have preferential access to HOV lanes but restrict HOV lanes to two/three-occupant vehicles that are also zero emissions.
  • They could increase the number of HOV lanes and take more road space away from single-occupancy vehicles entirely.

I suspect that given the two positive trends of carsharing services and electric vehicles, that last is most likely. The age of the single-passenger automobile being dominant is slowly starting to fade.

California is ahead of most jurisdictions globally. The path it has followed is instructive. Jurisdictions considering HOV, toll road, and other preferential access should bypass less effective vehicle types and move straight to the end goal of electrics only.

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About the Author

Mike works with startups, existing businesses and investors to identify opportunities for significant bottom line growth in the transforming low-carbon economy. He regularly publishes analyses of low-carbon technology and policy in sites including Newsweek, Slate, Forbes, Huffington Post, Quartz, CleanTechnica and RenewEconomy, with some of his work included in textbooks. Third-party articles on his analyses and interviews have been published in dozens of news sites globally and have reached #1 on Reddit Science. Much of his work originates on Quora.com, where Mike has been a Top Writer annually since 2012. He's available for consultation, speaking engagements and Board positions.

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