LIHUE — Two sleek cars — one red and the other blue — sit in adjoining parking spaces at Kukui Grove Center in Lihue. They are testimony to the speed with which Kauai is embracing electric vehicles.
They are Teslas. The red one is a Model S, which ranges in price from about $73,000 to about $93,000. The blue one is a Model 3 — Tesla’s version of the economy car — which goes for between about $33,000 and about $49,000.
Both of these vehicles belong to Lihue-based Mission Zero Hawaii, the state’s largest EV-only rental fleet, with 11 cars, including examples from Nissan, BMW, Tesla and Kia. Justin Carvalho, who runs Mission Zero, said the company is expanding its fleet — selling off its remaining Nissan Leaf because its range is no longer competitive with other makes and adding more Kias and Teslas, including two of the newly announced Tesla Cybertruck, which won’t even start manufacture for at least a year.
The two are among 39 examples of the Tesla brand officially registered on Kauai, even though the island still has few charging stations and there is no dealer or authorized service garage for them on the island. When something goes wrong, if all goes well, Tesla assigns a technician on Oahu to make repairs online or fly over to Kauai and, if necessary, rent garage space to work on the car in person.
In all, according to the City and County of Honolulu Department of Information Technology — which handles the back-office functions of Kauai’s motor-vehicle-registration system — there are 345 EVs registered on island. The number is up dramatically in the last two years.
Records of the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism show that there were just two EVs on Kauai in early 2006. The number stayed below 10 until 2011. It jumped over 100 in late 2014 and surpassed 200 in August of 2017, according to the state figures. In April of this year, the total rose to 304 and has been increasing steadily ever since.
All told, there are about 70,000 motor vehicles registered on Kauai, so EVs still count for only a slight portion of the total.
But some observers think even 345 is an undercount. Sonja Kass, who founded an organization called KauaiEV, said that because the Nissan Leaf is the only “pure” EV sold by any dealer actually on Kauai, many such vehicles are purchased in Honolulu or elsewhere and shipped here. Because they may be originally licensed on Oahu or another locale, such cars may not be immediately re-registered on Kauai, and thus may escape inclusion in the registration total for as much as two years, she contended.
Kass believes the Kauai EV total might be as much as 20 percent higher than official registration figures show, though she concedes that is only an undocumented estimate.
“We help people shop for cars, sometimes even walk into the dealership with them,” Kass said. “Many of us let people test drive our cars or give rides. We try to identify locations where more chargers are needed and teach EV owners about proper etiquette for sharing the chargers.”
Tesla’s corporate headquarters in California refused to comment on its repair process for Kauai, and a sales person at the company’s Honolulu showroom seemed uncertain how maintenance is actually handled.
One Lihue owner of a Model 3 said he believes there are actually at least 50 Teslas on Kauai. He also said maintenance and repair can be a challenge. A rock cracked this owner’s windshield in early December and he said getting through to an actual service person in Honolulu was a nightmare since Tesla relies on an impenetrable automated phone system for service requests.
Ultimately, after about two weeks of trying, the owner said he was able to get a new windshield ordered, but that it won’t arrive for at least another two weeks.
The most commonly owned EV on Kauai is the Nissan Leaf, of which 207 are registered, according to the City and County of Honolulu figures. There are just five BMWs and 26 Kias, though Kia, Carvalho said, has started selling an electric version of its Soul SUV with vastly improved range. Consumer reaction has been so positive, he said, that Kia has restricted supplies in Hawaii to support the larger market in California.
There are 17 Toyota Prius Primes and 12 Chevrolet Volts — both cars that offer ranges of as much as 40 miles on electric current only, but have gasoline engines that activate to recharge the batteries. Both are technically classified as EVs because they are capable of operating on electric power only.
Carvalho said Mission Zero rents its EVs for between $40 and $100 a day — rates competitive with many conventional car-rental companies. He said he sees three primary types of customers, the first consisting of tourists curious about driving an EV.
“Two years ago, people were a lot more hesitant,” he said, adding that increased range associated with many of the latest EVs has started to address such concerns.
The second group of customers are people who have previously rented EVs, and the third group is EV enthusiasts who specifically seek out such cars as rentals, he said.
The County of Kauai government has gotten into the act as well, and now has five Nissan Leafs, five Toyota Prius Primes and five Subaru Crosstreks in its fleet, along with a number of older Toyota Priuses, which are hybrids that are registered as conventional cars. The Subaru model has limited all-electric range, like the Prius Prime.
Kass, however, was critical of the county for not doing more to promote EV use.
“Sadly, in my opinion, the county is not doing enough,” Kass said. “A few years ago, they were great at installing the first public chargers and purchasing a few EVs, but there is so much more they could do to encourage sustainable transportation.”
Charging stations are being added more rapidly now than three or four years ago. Several large hotels now have them, and recently completed shopping centers in Lihue and Kilauea have included them. Still, charging stations remain concentrated in Lihue, leaving EV owners on the North Shore and Westside with few options.
Kass said the Kauai Island Utility Cooperative is “open to change and can see the connection between renewables, storage, increased electricity use and EVs.”
Carvalho and Kass said improvements in EV range have made such vehicles practical alternatives on the island, though most makes and models are still pricier than many island households can afford to purchase new.
Carvalho said there are several EV makes that have ranges of more than 250 miles, so a trip from the North Shore to Polihale State Park and back, without recharging, is well within the realm of possibility.
“Most 2019 EVs have ranges from 150 to more than 370 miles and can really go anywhere on the island and get you back home,” Kass said. “The EVs from a few years ago had 120 to 140 miles of range, so you if lived on the Eastside, you could go all the way north or west and back on one charge, but you couldn’t go from Hanalei to Koke‘e without recharging on the way home.”
Affordable used EVs are now coming on the Kauai market, she said, and, even with aging batteries, still have ranges between 60 and 100 miles — enough to make them viable commuter cars.
“You can live in Kilauea, drive to work in Lihue, do some shopping and then drive home and then recharge at night,” she said.
Carvalho said EV owners experience maintenance costs substantially below those of conventional vehicles for a variety of reasons. For one thing, they don’t have internal combustion engines, so EVs don’t experience breakdown problems common to conventionally fueled automobiles. He said brake wear is also substantially less with EVs because they rely on regenerative braking that slows the car electrically when the driver takes his or her foot off the accelerator.
Beth Tokioka , KIUC’s spokesperson, said the utility owns only one EV — a Nissan Leaf. Most of KIUC’s vehicle fleet, though, she said, is heavy-duty trucks for which there are no electric-powered alternatives at the moment.
KIUC, Tokioka said, has partnered with Nissan to help sponsor an annual sales promotion that offers deep discounts on the Leaf, and plans to work closely with companies planning to install additional charging stations.
Recent state legislation provides for rebates for certain charging-station installations, she said.
“We continue to dialogue with stakeholders on Kauai and throughout the state for other opportunities,” she said.
The rising number of EVs, some observers have said, starts to raise a question about whether the existing system of financing for road maintenance needs to be changed. At the moment, because EVs don’t use gasoline, their owners pay no gasoline taxes, and those taxes fund the lion’s share of road and highway construction and maintenance.
For several years, experts have argued about the best solution or solutions for the funding dilemma. In early 2019, a University of California at Davis expert proposed a new system in which EVs would be charged an annual fee based on the total miles they are driven, while conventionally fueled cars would continue to pay traditional fuel taxes at the pump.
“The honest answer is that there is no simple answer,” Carvalho said. “We are more than happy to pay our fair share.”
Allan Parachini is a journalist, furniture maker, Kilauea resident and retired public relations executive who writes occasionally for The Garden Island.