Why Is It So Hard to Buy an Electric Car in Many Parts of America?

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

Results from a recently published Sierra Club report confirm the
dismal state of the EV buying experience in the United States
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 on their lot
for sale.

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 non-profit Sunrise Project.
(In April 2018, Greentech Media
published a profile
of the conversation 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 from Utah are

“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 VW. “They seem all-in on
EVs post diesel-gate 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. VW said at the Frankfurt Auto Show last September
that 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 they weren’t sure when
VW would have EVs available in Utah but that they’d get back to
him with an answer. They never did.

“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

“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

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 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

Manufacturers failing to advertise EVs

What would happen if automakers pushed EVs more aggressively?
Latent demand is there.

A Consumer Reports/Union of Concerned Scientists
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, 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
ICE-EV advertising disparity was 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

The lack of education is evident in the results of a new Ipsos

(PDF) of consumers’ knowledge of battery electric
vehicles (BEVs). 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

Source: FS – GreenTech Media
Why Is It So Hard to Buy an Electric Car in Many Parts of America?