Electric cars have a handful of natural advantages that offset their higher purchase cost: They cost far less per mile than gasoline cars, and they're simply nicer to drive.
But if awareness of the many plug-in models now on sale is slowly increasing, why are sales of plug-in electric cars lower than many makers expected? (Although higher than hybrid cars at the same point in time.)
Tesla Store opening in Westfield Mall, London, Oct 2013
The challenge, as always, is what insiders call "getting butts in seats"--actually getting potential buyers behind the wheel of an electric car to experience it first-hand.
Impediments include disinterested dealers, uneven distribution, limited supplies, and quite a lot of uninformed, inaccurate, and occasionally biased media headlines.
There's also the challenge of woefully inept marketing, which can suggest that electric cars are a moral imperative or a duty--rather like taking medicine you don't like even though you know it's good for you.
So how can automakers overcome this array of obstacles and actually get customers to the point where they can test-drive an electric car so the lightbulb goes on?
Effective opportunities needed
As we often do, we reached out to electric-car advocate and sage Chelsea Sexton.
"The premise is right," she responded. "We talk of getting butts in seats because we know that's what works: Once people try electric cars, they like them."
But, Sexton added, "The hard part has never been getting people to 'try' an electric car, by taking a test drive, etc."
"The challenge is more in creating effective opportunities for them to do so."
Outside a few isolated examples--national launch tours for the Chevrolet Volt and Nissan Leaf, and a handful of car-sharing or rental opportunities--the only place most people can test-drive an electric car is at a car dealer.
"That's what most people typically do," she said, "usually begrudgingly, and only when they're actually in the market to buy soon."
Getting butts in seats earlier
But electric cars aren't an impulse buy, Sexton suggested. "They need to be on the radar of someone who's still in the 'mulling' stage."
While a car buyer "might head into a Honda dealer intending to buy a Civic, but end up with an Accord (or vice versa), it's far less likely he drives out in a Honda Fit EV unless he'd already experienced driving an electric car and had already been thinking of a plug-in."
In other words, it's getting electric cars into what marketers call the consideration set in the first place.
First test drive of the Tesla electric roadster
"The initial exposure needs to happen sooner," Sexton urged, "at least in visibility if not in actual driving--via a neighbor, a fleet driver, and, yes, through great marketing."
If we're looking for where to place blame (or responsibility), she said, "the framing [should be] less on the consumer being reluctant, and more on the industry and stakeholders needing to improve both the marketing and the tactile opportunities" for consumers to experience electric cars before they're ready to buy.
Understanding the differences
Finally, Sexton said, it's crucial in both cases that the consumer ends up "understanding how electric cars are both similar to, and different from, conventional vehicles--in terms of both timelines and purchase decisions."
So there you have it, carmakers: How do you--and the dealerships that you don't control--improve your marketing, offer drivers more opportunities to drive electric cars before they're ready to buy, and generally raise awareness to get electric cars into the consideration set?
What do you think carmakers and dealerships should do?
Leave us your thoughts in the Comments below.