Cue the handwringing: U.S. plug-in electric vehicle sales in 2019 (329,528) declined by 9 percent compared to 2018 (361,307).
There’s plenty of blame to go around: relatively cheap gas, expiring federal EV tax credits for Tesla and GM, the dearth of available electric trucks and SUVs, higher upfront costs compared to conventional vehicles.
But the auto industry is itself partially to blame for last year’s stagnant market. Despite automakers’ frequent pronouncements proclaiming electric vehicles as the future of mobility, they haven’t fully deployed their considerable resources to market and sell EVs.
How can one conclude Americans aren’t interested in EVs when automakers barely advertise them, dealers sparingly stock them and many salespeople remain indifferent, if not hostile, to selling them?
Results from a recently published Sierra Club report confirm the dismal state of the EV buying experience in the United States (PDF). In a first-of-its-kind survey, nearly 600 volunteers visited more than 900 auto dealerships and stores across all 50 states and found that 74 percent of dealerships do not have a single EV for sale on their lot.
Electric car hunting in a red state
Ten states, most of them on the West and East Coasts, including Massachusetts, New York and Oregon, have adopted California’s zero-emission vehicle (ZEV) standards for new cars. But away from the coasts, the EV buying experience is even worse.
The Sierra Club survey found that 78 percent of auto dealerships in non-ZEV states had no EVs on their lots.
Justin Guay and his family recently relocated to Utah from Northern California. Guay is a professional climate advocate who directs global climate strategy at the nonprofit Sunrise Project. (In April 2018, Greentech Media published a profile of the conversion of the Guays’ former house to an all-electric home.)
With the lease on the family’s all-electric Chevy Bolt expiring at the end of 2020, Guay has started shopping for a new EV. But, so far, the prospects for buying an EV in Utah are bleak.
“I'm really excited about all the models that are hitting the market because I finally seem to have what we've never had before in looking for EVs: a lot of choice. The problem is that choice and freedom seem to be limited once you leave the California border,” he said in an interview.
He initially focused his search on VWs. “They seem all-in on EVs post-Dieselgate and have a bunch of new models I was curious about seeing,” he said.
One dealership told him new EV models wouldn’t be available in Utah until 2022. At the Frankfurt Auto Show last September, VW announced the ID.4, an all-electric crossover, would hit U.S. showrooms in late 2020.
Another dealership asked why he wanted an EV instead of a “normal” car. A third dealership said it wasn’t sure when VW would have EVs available in Utah but that a rep would get back to him with an answer. That never happened.
“If you've ever accidentally given a dealership your phone number, you will literally be harassed nonstop to come back and buy,” he said. “Instead, for an EV, I got crickets.”
Last, he tried Tesla, and was in and out of the store in two minutes.
“The staff told me I could find the pricing information online, and they didn't know when the Model Y would be available in Utah,” Guay said.
“I know several people who consider it a serious option to fly out to California in order to buy an EV and bring it back. That’s how hard it is to get what you want outside of California,” he added.
Even in California — the nation’s largest EV market by far — consumers can encounter limited options.
Consider the story of your GTM correspondent. My wife and I were recently up against the expiration of the three-year lease on our 2016 Nissan Leaf. We contacted the sales rep who handled that transaction and let him know that if he could find us a 2019 Leaf S with the base-level trim, we’d drive the car off the lot that day.
In the sales rep’s office, we waited as he searched the available inventory. A red 2019 Leaf S wasn’t available on their lot, nor in the entire San Francisco Bay Area, where we live. A new Leaf with our preferred specs wasn’t available within 500 miles.
Manufacturers failing to advertise EVs
What would happen if automakers pushed EVs more aggressively? The latent demand is there.
A Consumer Reports/Union of Concerned Scientists survey released in July 2019 found that 63 percent of Americans are interested in EVs and 31 percent would consider an EV for their next vehicle purchase. Two-thirds or more of respondents said they supported tax incentives and rebates for EVs, discounted rates for EV charging from utilities, and investment by their own state in EV charging infrastructure.
So, nearly one-third of Americans are already considering an EV purchase, and that’s with automakers making little effort to market the cars. The Sierra Club survey cites research (PDF) by the Northeast States for Coordinated Air Use Management (NESCAUM), a nonprofit association of air quality agencies, on recent automaker advertising expenditures.
In 2017, GM, Toyota, Nissan, Ford, Fiat-Chrysler and VW spent a combined $540 million to advertise their best-selling internal combustion engine car, amounting to an average of $90 million per car. The same six automakers together spent $29 million to advertise nine EV models, an average of $3.2 million per car.
Even in states with more robust EV standards and targets, the advertising disparity between ICE and EV models was similarly wide. The NESCAUM analysis found that in 2018 total advertising spending in the California and Northeast markets for the best-selling internal combustion engine car of each manufacturer was $230 million. Total advertising spending in the same markets for six EV models that year was $22 million.
The lack of education and outreach efforts is evident in the results of a new Ipsos survey (PDF) of consumers’ knowledge of battery electric vehicles. According to the global survey, “the U.S. exhibited some of the lowest familiarity with BEVs, with only 10 percent indicating they know them ‘very well.’”
Respondents thought it would be nearly five years before an EV hit the market that works with their budget and meets their needs, and nearly half mistakenly believe they would need to charge an EV once a day or more.
Consumers are clearly curious about electric vehicles. It’s time for automakers and dealerships to get serious about selling them.