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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