5 Problems Electric Car Consumers Face at Dealerships

This picture taken on June 9, 2014 shows Japanese auto maker Nissan Motor's electric vehicles "e-NV200" (L) and "Leaf" (R) at the company's headquarters in Yokohama, suburban Tokyo. Global automakers are locked in a showdown evoking the video format wars of the 1980s, as they bet on what eco-friendly vehicles will prevail in the battle for dominance of the burgeoning low-emissions sector.
Many problems electric car consumers face can be fixed by automakers  | Yoshikazu Tsuno/AFP/Getty Images

Can you imagine walking into a car dealership to test drive a new Mercedes only to learn the Benz had no gas? What if you saw an ad promising discounts of $2,000 on a hot Mustang but the salesperson never mentioned it and pushed back when you brought up the incentive? Welcome to the world of electric car shopping, where consumers educate salesmen on the lot, EVs lurk out of sight, and plug-in batteries might be so low you can’t even take a test drive.

These are just a few of the issues car shoppers encounter when trying to learn about and potentially buy an EV from local dealerships. This situation, which has come up in the past, was given the multi-state survey treatment by the Sierra Club in early 2016. A band of 174 volunteers went shopping for plug-ins at 308 dealerships in the 10 states participating in the ZEV Program, and the results were sometimes unnerving.

Here are the five biggest problems EV consumers faced during the shopping experience along with solutions provided by Gina Coplon-Newfield, director of the Sierra Club’s electric vehicle initiative and co-author of the study. Coplon-Newfield was kind enough to email Autos Cheat Sheet her ideas for improving the situation.

1. Electric cars are out of sight, literally

Nissan Leaf charging on New York's Lower East Side
You may have to look hard to find an EV | Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images

If you visited a Chevy dealership, you’d expect to find a Silverado 1500 on the lot. Same goes for a Fusion on a Ford lot or an A3 at an Audi dealer. However, the same cannot be said for electric vehicles. In the study, shoppers reported Chevy dealers who could not keep any Volt inventory due to high demand, Kia dealers who said they maxed out at three models, and a Ford dealer in Maine who said the location didn’t stock EVs due to the cost of charging infrastructure.

One Volkswagen dealer in Connecticut said it cost $50,000 for charging stations and certification fees with the automaker to sell, which prices out many dealerships. But even those actively selling EVs sometimes did not have a single plug-in model on the lot. In other instances, it took a lot of searching for consumers to find them, as they were far from any prominent position.

Gina Coplon-Newfield said dealers have to increase inventory, with a minimum of 10 electric models a good standard to uphold. She also noted that automakers needed to concentrate on the Northeast: Sierra Club shoppers were 2.5 times more likely to find no EV in the other nine ZEV states (including Oregon) as in California. Finally, she recommended automakers removing the barriers to certification by lowering or eliminating fees to sell plug-in vehicles and training more EV specialists at every dealership.

Shoppers can help themselves as well. “Consumers should definitely call a dealership before going there to find out a) if they have EVs on the lot; and b) when their EV specialist(s), if any, are available to meet with them,” Coplon-Newfield said.

2. Little to no info about charging

The electric powered BMW i8 (L) and i3 (behind) are seen next to a charging point at the 66th IAA auto show in Frankfurt am Main, western Germany, on September 15, 2015.
The state of EV charging is less than perfect in 2016, and dealers backed off the issue | Todd Andersen/AFP/Getty Images

EV drivers can face a number of problems charging up cars while on the road. Unfortunately, about 50% of Sierra Club shoppers didn’t get any information about charging while traveling from salespeople at the dealerships that actually had plug-ins on the lot. In this case, we don’t blame salespeople all that much, as the issue can mystify even long-time EV drivers, some of whom won’t take their cars on road trips. Coplon-Newfield suggested EV owners take matters into their own hands.

“There are some good apps and resources for EV drivers about public charging stations,” she said. “Plugshare.com and the U.S. Department of Energy’s Alternative Fuel map have good information about the locations and details of thousands of public chargers. There are also several companies that provide EV charging networks that allow for easy swipe card charging; these include ChargePoint, Greenlots, eVgo, and SemaConnect.

3. Incentives were not discussed 33% of the time

Chevy Bolt EV
Dealers often did not discuss incentives, leaving consumers in the dark on discounts | Source: General Motors

Nearly every automaker advertises electric vehicles on company websites with the federal tax credit ($7,500) displayed somewhere on the vehicle page. In many ZEV states, there is even more cash on the table for purchases, as well as HOV lane access for drivers without passengers and discounts on installing charging stations in a residence. These incentives can be the difference between an affordable car and an expensive one.

Nonetheless, one-third of dealers with at least one EV on the lot did not mention these attractive elements of the deal. Aside from the poor sales technique, consumers could end up leaving the dealership believing a car costs $31,000 when it actually would cost $21,500 after tax incentives are applied and come with an HOV lane sticker.

“Not surprisingly, EV adoption rates increase when there are federal or state incentives to lower the cost, AND when people know about them,” Coplon-Newfield said. “The automakers should do a better job informing their dealerships of state and federal incentives that could lower the cost of EVs by up to $10,000. State governments can also play a role in this effort.”

4. Over 20% of EVs at Ford and Chevy had no charge

2015 Ford Focus Electric
Keeping electric vehicles charged to 50% capacity would guarantee enough range for test drives | Source: Ford

Of the Sierra Club volunteers who were at dealerships and asked to test-drive an EV, there was not enough charge in the battery to do so 14% of the time. At Ford (21%) and Chevy (22%) dealerships, the number was even higher. That’s about as lazy and careless as it gets, and there is little need to discuss this one much further.

“How can a consumer feel confident about buying or leasing the car or about the dependability of the dealership if the car can’t even be test driven?” Coplon-Newfield wondered. “How hard is it to plug the car in? Dealerships would never leave conventional cars out of gas for test drives, so they should take these simple steps to ensure EVs are charged and ready to go.”

5. Salespeople often knew little about EVs

An attendee looks at a 2011 Chevrolet Volt electric car modified with concept Z-Spec accessories at the Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA) trade show in Las Vegas, Nevada November 4, 2010. General Motors (GM) first unveiled the Chevy Volt concept in January 2007 and the car is expected to be at dealerships in early 2011. The SEMA show is the premier automotive specialty products trade event in the world drawing more than 100,000 industry leaders from more than 100 countries. AFP PHOTO / Robyn Beck (Photo credit should read ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)
Confusion about specs like MPGe and range are common among salespeople, many of whom were not trained to sell plug-ins | Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

Salespeople failed at this one nearly across the board. There was a Volkswagen salesman in California who volunteered that he received no training and knew little about the technology. One Ford salesman in New York had no clue about the car’s range and called it “a go kart.” At a Hyundai dealership in California, the EV specialist was not working when the shopper visited, so the matter was adjourned until a later date.

Again, poor training and a lack of commitment by major automakers are at work here. (Tesla and BMW, who scored first and second, respectively, were the exceptions.)

“Consumer satisfaction for EVs is extremely high, so if the auto industry took the time and care to improve training for salespeople, it could go a long way in getting customers terrific products,” Coplon-Newfield said. “Automakers and auto dealers should engage in certification and training programs to ensure that salespeople have the proper knowledge and enthusiasm about EVs, including charging methods and state and federal rebates and tax credits.

“When we followed up with the dealerships that received the highest score possible from our volunteers for salesperson expertise, we learned that they have their salespeople participate in regular trainings to keep up to date on EV technology and public policies.”

See the full Multi-State Study of the Electric Vehicle Shopping Experience (PDF) here.

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