How Electric Vehicles Can Crack the Northeast Car Market

Source: Nissan

In a new report on the Northeast electric vehicle market, we see how far the region is behind the West and what type of strides will be necessary to bring down troubling emissions levels. According to the authors of “Charging Up,” only a bold shift in policy and cooperation between public and private sectors can turn the tide in the sluggish market stretching from Maryland to Maine. The study presents a nine-step plan for automakers, governments, businesses, and utility providers to tackle.

The report was co-authored by the Sierra Club, Acadia Center, and Conservation Law Foundation, three organizations concerned with climate change and transportation’s role in it. Though never saying so explicitly, the authors point out that the current policies in place have little chance to succeed. To highlight the challenge, they note the goals charted by six East Coast states in a 2013 pact with Oregon and California to get 3.3 million zero-emissions vehicles (ZEVs) on the road by 2025.

Since an agreement was inked by the governors of Massachusetts, New York, Vermont, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Maryland, the East Coast markets have been unable to keep pace with their projections. Only Vermont, the state with the lightest commitment, has cracked 40% of the EV sales totals (941 of a projected 2,163) set for 2017. New York, which would need to get another 40,000 electric cars (of a projected 52,000) on the road by 2017, has the steepest hill to climb.

With that gut-check concluded, the authors turn to their nine recommendations for accelerating the EV market. Several ideas, including more robust state incentives and better public charging options, are time-honored directives for boosting EV adoption. High-level task forces and increased public outreach are also on the docket. However, the study takes something of a surprising turn in detailing how weak marketing efforts and a leadership vacuum in the business community are keeping things status quo on the region’s electric car market.

focus electric
Source: Ford

Along with an increase in plug-in use by government fleet operators, business owners will need to contribute to the alternative-fuel cause. According to a Department of Energy study cited by the authors, people are 20 times more likely to drive a plug-in car if they have access to a charger at work. (Other studies confirm how useful workplace chargers have become.) In a region where signs for EV chargers are scarce on the road and in town, the visual reinforcement would be welcome, too.

In fact, the authors suggested EV stations at work could actually replace home charge systems in some instances, making the cars viable for employees in their daily commute. Business owners who hoped to move forward on this front do have assistance in some of the states covered. In both Massachusetts and Vermont, incentives are available for employers willing to add chargers to employee parking lots.

Gina Coplon-Newfield, director of the Sierra Club electric vehicles initiative and one of the primary authors of the report, told Autos Cheat Sheet that progress also “must include major utility programs that involve EV charger installation, smart rate structures, and battery storage and load balancing initiatives created in conjunction with grid modernization. These types of programs will help us accelerate EVs and clean energy sources simultaneously.”

The authors pointed out how automakers and their dealership networks are playing a supporting role in slow electric car adoption. While we have seen West Coast models like Chevy Spark EV and Kia Soul EV get their East Coast papers eventually, the study suggested car companies are hardly doing enough in marketing and on dealer lots where inventory is lacking. Among the ideas for improvement, the authors suggested better training for salespeople and producing more ads for EVs to run on the air.

BMW i3 Miles Willis/Getty Images
Miles Willis/Getty Images

Anyone with a television knows how little EVs are advertised. After releasing its Focus Electric in 2011, the first quick TV spot for the car appeared in 2015. Likewise, recent ads for the new Nissan lineup in the New York area mention the all-electric Leaf only in passing. Most distressing of all, Chevy’s 2016 Volt ads show how the country’s biggest automaker has been happy to disparage all-electric cars to sell a few more hybrids. There’s a long way to go, to say the least.

Our experience trying to find electric cars in Northeastern states reflected the findings of the study’s researchers. In late 2014, trying to find a Ford Focus Electric in Philadelphia proved exceedingly difficult for such a large city, with the dealership in Southwest Philly telling us a 2016 model would appear in early 2015. (Eventually, a single Focus Electric did arrive on the lot in January.) For a state where a $3,500 incentive existed at the time in addition to federal tax credits, that felt like a wasted opportunity.

In a Consumer Reports survey of 85 dealerships cited by the authors of “Charging Up,” secret shoppers had the experience of being misled about the presence of EVs on the lot and in some cases were recommended other (gas) cars. The conclusion that electric cars deserve better marketing in the area hardly seems contentious.

The question is how to reverse the course when automakers are profiting on other vehicle segments and waiting for plug-in vehicles to become relevant. Coplon-Newfield noted that “automakers are required to sell millions of zero emission vehicles in at least 10 states over the next 10 years, including many states in the northeast and mid-Atlantic.” So the incentive is there, at least from a long-term perspective.

California Gov. Brown Holds Press Conf. On Expansion Of Electric Vehicle Market
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Yet Coplon-Newfield said it would have to be a collective effort in marketing, inventory, and incentives for dealers to start selling more EVs now. “Once [automakers] step it up, they will sell a lot more EVs, and manufacturing and battery prices will come down faster for both the automakers and the consumers.”

Taken together, the effort to jumpstart the electric vehicle market in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic can sound like an imposing task. Yet there are signs that times are changing. Both the Chevy Spark EV and Kia Soul EV got their East Coast passports for the first time in 2015, so inventory is improving. New Jersey just got a new DC fast charger in Montclair, so there are visible imrovements in charging infrastructure.

Pennsylvania continues to offer $2,000 purchase incentives for EVs though the funds may be cut soon. Philadelphia, a city known for its ruthless parking authority, actually offers the ability for apartment dwellers to get a charger along with a dedicated EV parking spot curbside for a reasonable fee.

By 2016, a new Chevy Volt and longer-range Nissan Leaf will make their debuts on grizzled East Coast port cities as well. Still, the fight to shake up the market will be a rough-and-tumble battle. But is there an alternative, other than runaway emissions from gasoline cars? Considering 33% of emissions come from the U.S. transportation sector, it seems like this nine-point list is an ideal place to start.

Source: Charging Up

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