Electric-Car Dealerships Struggle, But Why Such Surprise?

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2011 Chevrolet Volt

2011 Chevrolet Volt

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A recent article in the Oakland Tribune highlights the high failure rate of independent car dealerships selling only electric vehicles. Frankly, we're not at all surprised.

We worried readers might find a subtext that the slew of EV-only dealerships that have closed--in Berkeley, Concord, Davis, and Santa Rosa--is evidence that even the greenest of San Francisco Bay Area consumers aren't interested in electric cars.

Which is hogwash.

2011 Nissan Leaf prototype

2011 Nissan Leaf prototype

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Tesla Store in LA

Tesla Store in LA

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ZAP Xebra Sedan

ZAP Xebra Sedan

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Real electric cars this year

As we regularly write, real electric cars will land in dealerships before the end of this year. The 2011 Chevrolet Volt and the 2011 Nissan Leaf will be both be rolled out on a regional basis, starting in areas like California and the Pacific Northwest.

But they won't be sold at EV-only dealerships. They'll be sold at Chevrolet and Nissan dealers, respectively. Both will do 90 miles per hour or better; the 2011 Leaf will have a 100-mile range, the 2011 Volt well over 300 miles.

And it's worth pointing out that the Tesla Roadster is now in its second year of sales at a handful of Tesla Stores in major cities.

NEVs aren't real cars

And those specifications highlight the problem for the EV dealers: They weren't selling "real" cars from real automakers that happened to run on electricity. Instead, they were selling low-speed neighborhood electric vehicles, known as NEVs.

With top speeds of 35 miles per hour or less, and licensing regulations that vary from state to state, NEVs are more often seen with security guards or maintenance crews on college campuses or large industrial sites than they are on city streets.

To her credit, writer Janis Mira identified "the cars' own limitations" as the most notable cause for the multiple failures, specifically citing products from Zap and Zenn, among others.

A key quote: "People would come to my dealership and they would see what the car would and wouldn't do," said [defunct Berkeley dealer Marc] Korchin.

Diesel dealers?

So let's be very clear: Real, highway-capable electric cars are coming. You will buy them at your local car dealer, whether it's an established brand (e.g. Nissan) or a startup (e.g. Tesla, Fisker, or Coda).

After all, when's the last time you saw a diesel-only dealership? Or a convertible-only dealership? Or an SUV-only dealer? (Well, maybe HUMMER isn't quite dead yet.)

Diesels are sold in the U.S. by their makers (Volkswagen, Mercedes-Benz, Audi, BMW). So are convertibles (too many to list). You get the idea.

It's a good thing

In fact, while we sympathize with their proprietors, we view the failure of these little dealerships as positive sign.

It signifies that consumers will be offered real electric vehicles that will play in primetime. They won't be relegated to a random collection of little stores whose motive is saving the planet, rather than offering competitive options for real people's transportation.

And in our eyes, that's a very good thing.


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Comments (5)
  1. My take on the last 2-3 years in street-legal electric vehicles is two steps forward and one step back. But I am not so hopeful as you that these other electric cars are coming anytime soon, what with the preponderance of hybrid/range extenders, limited release schedules, and fuzzy pricing. I hope I am wrong, but they 'killed the electric car' before. People who want to evolve our transportation system need to vote with their dollars. And boycott the major gas auto co's. That's the only political power we consumer/slaves have anymore. JMHO

  2. Hello John,
    You don't mention the Th!nk City -- isn't it going to be sold late in 2010? I'm not sure how or where they will be sold, but they have promised US spec (i.e. using the Enerdel lithium battery pack) made in their Finnish plant, and then after they start up their Indiana plant, the cars sold here will be built here. Enerdel is also in Indiana.
    Sincerely, Neil

  3. John Voelcker's opinion piece is disappointing. It illustrates how the NEV industry has failed to establish itself by effectively communicating the practical advantages and benefits of NEVs. NEVs were never intended to replace "real" cars. As with European Quadracycles and Asian Kei cars, they are designed for local use. For this, they are well suited.
    For my family, a $20K NEV with room for four and a range of 30-40 miles per charge makes more sense than a "real" EV like the 2011 Nissan Leaf or 2012 Mitsubishi iMiev - both costing twice as much but still not capable of long distance travel. The Chevy Volt, Coda, Tesla, Fisker, all over $40K, are certainly not affordable or practical for us.

  4. How about motorcycle dealers?
    There sure are plenty of those that sell bikes, scooters, and the like from multiple manufactures. The concept makes sense and has been proven to be successful.
    As Ron touches on, I think you fail to comprehend the concept of vehicle class distinction. Just like motorcycles are a separate class of vehicle, NEVs also occupy a distinct vehicle class. It's the use of the word "car" that always confounds and has so badly damaged the image of LSEVs and NEVs. I think semantics are very important in this context. People have a very clear definition and expectations of vehicles like motorcycles, trucks, S.U.V's, and cars. The manufactures and dealers have done a poor job in marketing NEVs as a separate class of vehicle.
    Take for instance the Zenn with its tagline "The Earth's friendliest car." From the start they were fighting an uphill battle to change peoples’ perception of what a car is. That’s a battle that can’t be won and only leads to negative sentiment. This blog is a good case in point.
    You are right when you say EV dealers weren't selling real cars and that real electric cars are coming. Car dealers sell real cars. EV dealers, like motorcycle dealers, sell a different class of vehicle as alternative transportations options to cars. If the NEV manufactures had spent real money on marketing perhaps there would be a clearer market segment for their vehicles and a much healthier demand.

  5. Primary problems appear to be range and performance. The energy density of a battery is considerably lower than for a petroleum fuel. The future may be hydrogen, but not H+ ions in a battery - rather H2 burnt in an IC Engine, in order gain efficiency from [H] in the energy system. FCEV's get close, but suffer from the expense/environmental equation worse. More viable perhaps is the electric motorcycle - The Carbonfibre Electric eCRP Racing bike springs to mind. 40-50km from a 3 hour charge, ideal for an urban dweller. Power is scintillating too.....

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