How To Boost Electric-Car Sales? Get 'Butts In Seats,' Experts Say

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2011 Nissan Leaf SL

2011 Nissan Leaf SL

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You might not know it from general media coverage, but plug-in electric-car sales are actually doing pretty well.

Still, people get impatient, and electric-car and environmental advocates want more, faster.

So what are the best ways to boost adoption of plug-in cars?

Education and awareness are the two key factors, said Brian Wynne, president of the Electric Drive Trade Association, on a conference call today.

And it turns out the best way to make people aware that electric cars are now a viable option is to let them get in the cars and drive them.

That's what the industry sometimes calls "getting butts into seats."

Wynne said that roughly one in three car buyers say they're willing to consider purchasing a plug-in electric car, in general.

But once they actually try out an electric car, he said, that number doubles--to about two out of three buyers.

This isn't particularly new--it was a theme at Plug-In 2012 earlier this year too--but it's important for electric-car advocates to understand just how little knowledge or understanding of the cars the general public actually has.

"We're just at the very beginning" of the process of getting plug-in cars into the mainstream, Wynne said.

Price is important, too, he acknowledged--and having a range of different vehicles, at different price points, for buyers to choose among.

But first and foremost, it's letting people drive electric cars, to experience "instant torque, great acceleration, the quiet ride and the smoothness," as Wynne enthused.

So while events like the annual National Plug-In Day festivals across the country expose thousands of potential buyers to electric cars, it's the everyday contact with friends, neighbors, and coworkers that will really make the difference.

As the saying goes, “It takes an owner to make an owner.”

Here's our challenge to the plug-in drivers among our readers: How often do you show off your car to others? How often do you let people test-drive it?

Leave us your thoughts in the Comments below.


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Comments (22)
  1. Through my blog and test rides I've sold cars. It works.

  2. What are you providing test rides in?

  3. Renault Fluence ZE.

  4. How is it doing overall, Brian? Outside the UK? Hard to follow what's going on in Europe from the States so here's hoping there is progress over there as well. What's the next intended volume EV to be sold in Europe, for example? Either here or in a future article, I'd love to hear how things are going for EVs in Europe, too. Well, all over, really, but Europe in your case.

  5. I offer to take the skeptics for a ride in my Volt, once they do their tune changes :) It's the battle of electric and stereotype of the old Chevy. I think they would have done better with their own line like they did with Saturn.

  6. I'm holding off on driving a Volt until I absolutely have to replace my old Camry, because I'm pretty sure I'll be sold once I do.

  7. Rick is so right. I had a Prius-owning friend drive my Volt yesterday. "Mmmm, peppy and so quiet--seems quieter than my wife's Lexus GS300.
    Rides and steers so much better than the crappy Chevys that I've driven",....
    I've already suggested this wife drive the car. Heh, heh. I am sure that G.M. pondered how to market this wundercar for a long time and they probably concluded that Chevrolet was more in line with target Prius than would Cadillac have been..and with way more dealers to push the car. Chevy had a traveling Drive-a-thon show a couple of years ago that included the Volt. They should do another one especially for the Volt.

  8. That is so true. I know for a fact that at least 1 Leaf and 2 Volts at my work are bought after a great test drive.

    Of course, all 3 owners can afford it. But the major switching point is the fact that they brought their spouses for a test drive. Once they drive it, they are sold...

    But that is NO different than selling an average car. Automakers have been trying for years to bring the buyers into showroom for test drives. Free cash giveaway, take home test drives, free Ski tickets, sports show tickets have been used to get the buyers into the showroom for years.

    But for EVs, the experience is even more important. It is NOT about a particular brand, but a technology in general.

  9. I actually got in an argument with a person online once who was bashing the Leaf. So I dared him to go test drive one I said " go drive one and see what you think then, it's ok if you still don't like them but at least you'll be aware of what they're like". Well sometime later I heard back from him and he had bought a Leaf. People fear new things and with EVs I think some people think they're going to upset their way of life. But just one test drive makes you realize that not only is the experiance similar but the car is beautifully quiet and fun to drive. When I'm driving electric I feel like I'm driving the car of the future, a car that is actually new not just updated.

  10. I totally agree. I try to stay in EV as much as I can with my Volt. I really don't like going to gas stations.

    There is nothing close to the Electric powertrain in terms of instant torque, smoothness and linear flow of power...

  11. I've actually started to find that cars that used to excite me, now seem boring. Sure Lamborghinis are cool, but EVs are seriously cool and I thinks it's the driving experience that makes the difference.

  12. I like Lamborghinis and Ferraris too. But I would take a Tesla S over those two cars now. It certainly makes sense to buy a Tesla S over a BMW M5 now... :)

  13. I've noticed the same thing. Ooooh, an R8? Meh, just another gas burner...

  14. Well, I'm still pretty excited by a few ICE vehicles, but the list is shrinking, yes... But we still need a few more high-end EVs to really make me 100% EV. When we have the Model X and offerings by others, especially BMW and Audi for me, then we'll really have arrived. Not that basic EVs aren't critical, of course, just that aspirational EVs bring the overall reputation up for all makes.

    But from a design viewpoint, there will always be great-looking ICEs, too, even if I pass on them. Just make them more efficient while we transition to much higher EV rates in future years.

  15. is a map utility to bring together EV drivers and the EV-curious. Check it out. If you drive a plug-in car, list yourself. If you want to ask a real driver about their experience, find one near you. ( is a joint project of Plug In America, the Electric Auto Association and CalCars.)

  16. I think if the Rental car fleets could rent EVs for short day trip customers, you would get a lot of converts. I have done a lot of day trip meetings, out at the crack of dawn, land, get a rental car, go to the meeting, leave by 3. If i were to rent an electric, i wouldn't have to even fill it up on the way back.

  17. Agreed 100% and we're just starting to see this now. I'd pay more to test a LEAF, for example, even if I have no intention of buying/leasing one myself. I'd love to rent a Tesla Model X down the road to help decide between it and whatever else is available by the time it's out. Model X, not S, since I'm locked into my Volt lease until 2015.

  18. The next best thing to getting a test drive is riding in a taxi. I'm a big tech advocate but the thing that convinced me the Hybrids were good was getting rides from taxi drivers and having them just praise their beasts.

    If the Volt were to become "Common" amongst Cab Fleets, we would see a lot of people start buying them up.

  19. The Volt is a terrible taxi due to the "tunnel" in the backseat rendering it a 4-person-max vehicle, alas. Also, it's exceptional efficiency relies on the battery having some charge, which won't last all that long in a typical shift. After that's done it becomes a normal hybrid with a small back seat.

    Taxi fleets are better served with Priuses right now. And please don't mis-read this, I'm a Volt fan.

  20. I would agree with that. And I am a die hard Volt fan.

    I would say a Prius V or even a C-Max Hybrid would make more sense than Leaf or Volt. (even Prius C doesn't make sense).

  21. I don't know if the Volt is really a terrible taxi, but it certainly wouldn't work for all. Then again, I'm usually in a taxi by myself or with 1-2 people at the most for work. It would still work for me 95% of the time, but your point is still valid, of course.

  22. Taxi drivers don't buy a taxi that might lose out on a fare when a family looks in back and sees there is no room for three people. It's a >terrible< taxi because it will often lose a fare, not because it works for most fares.

    Priuses don't have this problem and get amazing urban gas mileage. They pay for themselves, which is why you see tons of them in mixed-vehicle taxi fleets.

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