A recent volunteer survey compiled by the Sierra Club seems to confirm what many have suspected: U.S. dealerships are not adequately marketing electric vehicles (EVs), which is making it difficult for them to gain market share. The Sierra Club launched a campaign, Rev Up EVs, in early April, encouraging volunteers to check out EVs at their local car dealerships. The Sierra Club was primarily interested in dealerships located in the 10 states that have adopted the California Air Resources Board’s Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV) mandate, which requires automakers to sell more EVs. These states include California, Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Vermont. The campaign brought together 174 volunteers who in total surveyed 308 stores and auto dealerships. The results demonstrate that there is plenty of room for improvement when it comes to marketing and selling EVs.

The Sierra Club had the volunteers focus on the 13 biggest EV automakers and sellers in the United States, namely Audi, BMW, Chevrolet, Fiat, Ford, Hyundai, Kia, Mercedes, Nissan, Porsche, Tesla, Volkswagen, and Volvo. Data collected from the volunteers indicated that dealerships in California, a leader in EV sales, promote electric vehicles much more forcefully. Volunteers were two and a half times more likely to find an EV on site in California than in the other states, and, when EVs were on display, there were on average twice as many in California.

The report also found that 14 percent of the dealerships with EVs on site did not have them properly charged for test drives. Two U.S. brands were particularly ill-equipped to provide test drives to Sierra Club volunteers: 22 percent of Chevrolet dealerships with EVs and 21 percent of Ford dealerships with EVs did not have charged vehicles. When volunteer Louise A. visited a Nissan dealership in Connecticut, she reported, "I couldn’t do a test drive because the key was lost. I was encouraged to purchase a non-electric vehicle instead."

And perhaps most troubling of all, 33 percent of dealerships with at least one electric vehicle on display failed to mention the state and federal tax credits and rebates available to those who purchase an EV. Such credits will have little impact on consumer behaviors if they are not publicized.

The uneven marketing of EVs by dealerships mirrors the marketing woes that also beset FlexFuel Vehicles (FFVs), which are capable of running on ethanol blends of up to 85 percent (E85). Anecdotal evidence suggests FFVs were rarely promoted and never filled with E85 at dealerships, and little to no consumer education was conducted at the point of sale. The effect was that FFV owners rarely filled up on E85, even when it was locally available and cheaper. Ultimately, federal FFV credits were eliminated. With this cautionary tale in mind, carmakers, state regulators, and policymakers should think carefully about creating adequate market pull to get these cars on the road.

Electric vehicles can play a key role in reducing our carbon emissions and other harmful pollution from gasoline exhaust. A recent study published in the MIT Technology Review found that electric vehicles currently on the market could be used for up to 90 percent of vehicle miles traveled in the United States. Unfortunately, consumers continue to cite range anxiety as a major deterrent when considering electric vehicles, even though studies such as MIT's have consistently shown such fears are unwarranted. EESI has long advocated for plug-in hybrid flex fuel vehicles. Using these technologies together instead of separately would result in an astonishing 500 miles per gallon rating and completely eliminate range anxiety.

Electric vehicles still have a long way to go in the United States, where they make up less than 2 percent of the total passenger vehicle fleet. Yet, in countries like Norway, more than 12 percent of vehicles are electric. To "rev up" America's EV fleet, the Sierra Club's report includes a list of pro-EV recommendations for car dealers, manufacturers and policy makers. It also features the dealerships that received top marks from the report's volunteers, for their excellence at showcasing and marketing electric vehicles.


Author: Caitlin Majewski