Electric Car Industry Sums Up Progress, Challenges At Plug-In 2012

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2011 Nissan Leaf SL

2011 Nissan Leaf SL

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It’s been about 18 months since plug-in electric cars went on sale in the U.S., and you might say the industry is in something of a sophomore slump.

Sales of plug-ins, while higher than those of hybrids at the same stage of their launch, haven’t met the optimistic projections tossed around before they actually launched.

Once an electric car has been sold, the considerable extra effort required to install charging stations—whether in private garages or networks in public locations—have dulled some of the fervent excitement felt last year at this time.

And partisan political attacks haven’t helped either.

We’ve just spent three days at Plug-In 2012, the second of two large electric-vehicle conferences held in the U.S. this year. (The first was EVS-26, held in Los Angeles in May.)

What follows are some of the themes that emerged from this year’s conference.

  • The biggest task for advocates and owners is to “get butts in seats.” It was widely agreed that the driving experience of an electric car can’t be understood without actually letting new potential buyers drive them. Now that cars are available—on attractive lease terms too—it’s up to owners and carmakers to let as many people as possible test-drive their cars. As the saying goes, “it takes an owner to make an owner.”
  • Marketing must be completely retooled, to highlight the intense emotional connection plug-in owners have with their cars. As one speaker pointed out, current Chevy Volt ads with owner testimonials never show the car in motion. Where’s the excitement? Where’s that special driving experience? And how do you expect people to want a car that they’re being told is good for them—just like castor oil?
  • Dealerships remain a challenge. It takes up to four times as long to sell an electric car, and anecdotal reports indicate that some dealer sales staff are woefully uninformed; prefer the simpler, more familiar process of selling a gasoline car; and may even try to talk buyers out of the electric car they came to buy. A Nissan representative said only, “We work continually with the dealers on many levels to educate their staff.” One maker is considering whether electric-car salespeople should be differently compensated than other sales staff, to reflect the added effort and time required for the education and charging station components of a plug-in sale.
  • There’s no one single reason someone buys a plug-in car. Some buy to have the first, coolest, most high-tech car in the neighborhood, while others do so because they’ve always loved electric cars. Some are uber-greens, while others worry about energy security and U.S. dependence on foreign oil. A few buyers calculate the total cost of ownership, and expect to use the car in ways that will save them money over its total life. All these reasons are valid, but no single marketing campaign can appeal to all of them.
  • Business models for public charging stations are highly uncertain. The electricity needed to recharge most electric car batteries costs only a couple of dollars, but public charging stations require installation, maintenance, and some kind of billing system. Plug-in drivers seem to be willing to pay more for DC quick-charging, but those stations are more expensive yet, and running power lines to them can cost thousands of dollars itself.
  • Not all electric cars are equally available, but the public has little awareness that the car they see advertised may only be a “compliance car,” built in very limited numbers to meet regulatory requirements in California and a handful of other states.

While this wasn’t the most upbeat Plug-In, it reflected the reality and the hard work that attendees recognize has to be undertaken to make electric cars a permanent part of the market over the decades to come.

What do you think of these points? Do you agree with the attendees?

Leave us your thoughts in the Comments below.


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Comments (22)
  1. john,

    i actually think this is a very good article. first and foremost is getting butts in cars. and i have stated many times that the best advertising is someone you are acquainted with, be it friend, neighbor, or work.

    the only thing that is never gonna happen is charging stations. i realize that people are used to a gas station at every corner.

    but that notion will change as we get more butts in cars. it simply is not needed and will not be used long-term.

    it simply is too expensive. people will recharge at home whenever possible, to save money. and as the range improves, the need lessens.

  2. In hot EV places such as Northern California/Bay Area, charging at home isn't all that cheap unless you have solar panels installed. PG&E doesn't really provide any real discount to EV howners. Another concern for EV buyers...

  3. also there was no mention of price. hopefully the theme of "price" was not overlooked. it is by far and away what keeps drivers away. an equally priced car that was also available, would sell like hotcakes.

    they can get away with higher prices, but only to a point.

  4. You make a good point, but when the buyer is educated as the the monthly cost of ownership for a leased Volt or LEAF, the cost is often less than a comparable gas burner. Leasing costs have dropped a lot. If you spend $200/month on gas, you'll save money from day one in a plug-in.

  5. I think also the EV industry error when they felt if they produce the cars buyers will come. They have to find the market that needs the cars and willing to adjust to the requirements of owning/leasing one.

  6. Now that the honeymoon of being able to get a electric vehicle is fading and many early adopters have there butts in a E.V. The
    challenge is to get the masses out of there gas burning comfort zone.
    I think the two main factors to accomplish this is money and range. A cost effective E.V for the customer, a good profit for dealers and manufacturers ,and range that is comparable to a full tank of gas.
    The E.V ball has started rolling and eventually many good engineers will solve these problems and create a 1 million person snowball.

    By the way. Good article.I'm sure fox news and A.M radio host
    will love it.

  7. @Timothy: I'm not entirely clear what your last paragraph is meant to say. Are you suggesting that Green Car Reports should not report on conferences like this? Or that we should publish only happy, positive, upbeat news? Help me understand what you intended to say, please.

  8. One point that came up a number of times at Plug-In 2012 is that cost remains at the top of the list of why people don't buy an EV. Right now there are some great lease deals on both the Volt and the LEAF.

    As old-fashioned as it might be, I think Chevy and Nissan would both do themselves a favor by producing ads with the message "I leased my Volt for $380 a month and I save $200 on gas. Try that with any other kind of car!"

  9. This is a well thought of and well written article. I agree with it completely, especially the first 3 points. 1. Getting people to familiar with the "EV" experiences is important. Make it easier. I have been given plenty of rides to friends and co-workers. Almost all of them walked away impressed. 2. The commericals are terrible. Make some better ades would help. Maybe race a Leaf against Porsche and do it by draining Porsche's gas tank and see who goes farther...
    3. That is absolutely NOT helping the sales. Just about every sales person I talked to are completely clueless about the Volt or the Leaf... How can that help to sell the car if the salesperson can't answer the questions or provide good answers?

  10. @Xiaolong

    Exactly right. I experienced your comment on dealership sales people myself just recently. I knew FAR more than they did about the vehicles, and I'm still in learning mode myself. Very frustrating when you can't get a straight (and accurate) answer from the dealerships themselves.

  11. The "younger" sales person from hi tech area seems to be better than the "older" sales person. (No disrepect to older people). But in general, it was very frustrating. I wish they had a "designed" Volt expert in every dealership...

  12. I test drove an i-MiEV at our local dealership. The {young man} salesman started by asking me why in the world I would even consider buying the car. Then he tried to steer me into a traditional gas burner. We tolerated him so we could test drove the car, but with his negative attitude about it and his not knowing anything about it, we would not consider buying from him.

  13. Well, that "young man" wouldn't last long in that career if he can't figure out what a customer "want".

  14. My dealership, Nissan of Downtown LA, is taking out a full page ad in the Los Angeles Jewish Journal (great demographic for the LEAF!). It addresses the range issue directly. Please take a look at it this Thursday when it comes out and let me know if you think it is effective. We're spending a lot of money on this approach and I feel the creatives who designed the ad did a terrific job. Fingers are crossed that it works.

  15. I've had no problems at dealerships, I've had test drives, I was given brochures to take home, and I found all the discussed information to be accurate. And they were eager to sell the electric car I went to see. And the charging infastructure in my local area has exploded in size. The up scale shopping district in my area is haveing an electric car celebration this September with an all electric car show, test drives, and an unvailing of new chargers in the larger parking lot. I saw a guy at home depot loading lumber into a Leaf last week. I'm also finding it easier to talk about EVs with people there seems to be less opposition. EVs are growing in every direction, I can see it.

  16. If the Evproject had been executed as planned, the infrastructure would not be an issue now. I realize that people have been conditioned to tie their self-image to their car and they don't know what an EV identifies with. Even in this article there is an attempt to find the "reason" someone would buy an EV. After about a year of driving a Nissan LEAF, people that ride in the car like it, they know I drive it 2,000 miles per month. However they all have an emotional barrier to buying a car that does not burn gas.

  17. I would say that this article sums up the thrust of it. As an EV owner, I can also testify to the idea that owners/enthusiasts themselves are probably the best thing going for the manufacturers aside from the product itself. I have personally- kindly and with accurate information, of course- engaged dozens of people who had questions and/or comments about EVs over just the last year or since I took delivery of our first Leaf. I have given test drives to customers, friends, co-workers and relatives. I have 1dispelled more than a few myths, corrected many misperceptions and even had one person tell me that they would seriously consider an EV when it came time to trade. At this point, I am thinking about creating an EV primer just to save time

  18. I want to purchase an EV, but it isn't practical yet. I need at least 200 miles between charges to make it useful.

  19. Buy a Volt so you can get 40 miles of that 200 miles in PURE EV and still practical. Think of it as a "test" run in EVs that still has gas backup...

  20. Great article on lessons learned. Is there a similar one after EVS26?

    Personally, I learned a lot from an extended test drive (part 1 & 2) of a borrowed Chevy Volt - http://mauitips.wordpress.com/2012/07/28/extended-test-drive-part-2/

    Owners may be more positive towards EVs they bought (naturally, against buyer's remorse) but borrowers & renters don't have that - and can be more independent.

    A short spin around the corner at the auto dealer's may not be sufficient to "experience" the car. Renting it for a few days to a week may prove more enlightening.... but how many car rental companies are advertising they have EVs for rent?

  21. so what is the third big EV conferences in the US?

  22. The Plug In Hybrid is the right solution clearly and all we need here is Level 1 chargers or simply out door 110 volt outlets. The liquid fuel eventually can be biofuel since it will be less than 10% of that used by the conventional car. Society will never be able to replace the energy density of liquid fuel so trying to eliminate it makes no sense!

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