Sales figures for plug-in cars in the U.S. crossed the 100,000 mark four months ago, but in the U.K., the government has announced that it will end plug-in car incentives.

Some point to poor sales and an apathetic buying public.

One trade organization claims existing grants of £5,000 ($8,100) per plug-in vehicle aren’t enough to entice fleet and private buyers from high-efficiency diesel alternatives.

But what really went wrong?

In reality, poor advertising, a lack of education, and a misinformed media are all to blame for low electric-car sales. 

Volkswagen Golf BlueMotion (2015 VW Golf body style in U.S.)

Volkswagen Golf BlueMotion (2015 VW Golf body style in U.S.)

Diesel’s market share

Unlike the U.S., where diesels account for only a tiny proportion of the market, sales of oil burners in the U.K. last year accounted for 50 percent of the new-car market. 

Far cheaper to buy than a plug-in car, diesel cars are being marketed as cleaner, higher-mileage alternatives to gasoline vehicles. Add the ubiquity of diesel fuel at every filling station, and most new-car buyers automatically opt for a diesel if they want a high-efficiency, low-cost car. 

Diesel’s hold on the marketplace is further strengthened by the presence of ultra-high-MPG cars like the Volkswagen Golf BlueMotion.

Designed and built specifically to offer low-revving freeway driving at high efficiency, these cars appeal to fleet buyers and commuters alike for their ability to go 500 miles or more between fill-ups. 

Poor advertising

With diesel’s stronghold on the market, automakers would rather opt for the low-hanging, high-volume fruit of selling diesel cars than they would the tougher job of marketing plug-in cars to skeptical buyers. 

As a consequence, very few automakers in the U.K. advertise their plug-in cars through traditional means: television, radio, or print media.

Nissan Leafs replace black cabs in London

Nissan Leafs replace black cabs in London

Even Nissan and Renault, whose Leaf and Zoe electric cars are heavily targeted at drivers in London, have been lackluster about advertising outside of the capital.

The result is buyers who don’t consider electric cars because they're unaware of what models exist, and who makes them. 

From conversations I’ve had at charging stations--when people stop to ask about my Leaf while it charges--very few ‘regular Joes’ know how electric cars operate, how far they can drive per charge, how much they cost, or even that the government offered incentives to buyers.

Poor education

Without proper advertising, the general lack of knowledge on the part of car buyers and even dealers results in only a handful of dealers throughout the U.K. where staff are well-versed and properly trained on plug-in vehicles. 

Indeed, some dealerships with a plug-in car in the window or on the lot outside may have one on the premises, but don’t actively sell it.

Recently, I was told by a Vauxhall dealer that to get any information on the Vauxhall Ampera (a U.K. market Chevy Volt), I would have to phone the head office, some 300 miles away--even though a Vauxhall Ampera was sitting right there in the showroom. 

A misinformed media

From the tabloid press to the BBC, very few established media outlets seem to like or understand electric cars. Even when positive stories are covered--the installation of new charging stations along a freeway, say--a negative spin on the story and the lack of sales is inevitably noted.

Smart ForTwo Electric Drive at Urban Stage, London

Smart ForTwo Electric Drive at Urban Stage, London

The BBC in particular seems to dislike and mistrust electric cars. Recently, a BBC reporter spent days contacting city councils across the U.K. in pursuit of a story suggesting that electric-car charging stations were not being used by drivers, and that they were a waste of taxpayers’ money. 

Then of course, there’s BBC’s hugely popular Top Gear show, which takes great pleasure in creating showy stunts designed to send the message that electric cars aren’t ready for primetime.

On top of this, the poor reputation of plug-in cars from previous generations--like the tiny, diminutive low-speed vehicle known as the G-Wiz--and it's no wonder most new-car buyers steer clear of anything with a plug. 

Sadly, until education improves--by both advocates and automakers--that seems unlikely to change. 


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