Car Dealers Biggest Barrier To EV Sales


Car dealers downplay eV sales

A new study by Eric Cahill for the Institute of ¬†Transportation Studies at the University of California at Davis says the biggest reason there EV sales aren’t higher is that traditional car dealers don’t want to sell them. Margins on the cars are razor thin, so there is little direct profit to be made. To make matters worse, EVs need less routine maintenance and fewer repairs. Some dealers survive on the money their service and parts departments earn, according to the New York Times.

Most dealers try to sell their EVs the same way they would a Corolla or a Civic. They don’t want to be bothered educating the customer about electric or plug-in hybrids. They are there to sell cars, not give seminars. Salesmen see EV customers as a waste of their time. A good salesman can sell three cars in the time it takes to sell one EV.

So many questions! How do I charge my car? Where are there chargers in the area? What is regenerative braking? Why do I get less range in winter? What does “pre-conditioning” mean? What sort of wall charger should I get for my home? How much does it cost to charge this car? How long does charging take? How long will the battery last?¬†A conventional car buyer doesn’t need to ask all those questions. They only need to pick a color and a few options and then its straight on into the finance office for a few signatures before driving off the lot in that new jewel.

Some EV shoppers report that dealerships are doing such a poor job of training their sales staff, the customers often know more about the cars than the salespeople do. Others say they have felt pressured to buy a conventional car instead of an EV. Clearly, if the electric car revolution is every going to happen, dealers will have to be dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st Century. Eric Cahill calls car dealers a “bottleneck” on the way to greater EV sales.

Tesla and Elon Musk should use this information when they try to get individual states to pass laws that allow direct sales to customers, bypassing traditional dealers. Despite all the protestations from dealer groups about how valuable the franchise dealer model is, the truth is that franchise laws do nothing but protect the financial interests of a small group of business owners. They preserve a process that is the antithesis of the free market that all Americans say they favor.

Regulators can force manufacturers to build cars that get better fuel economy or pollute less, but no regulations can force car dealers to sell them. Until that conundrum gets resolved, the promise of a fossil fuel free future will continue to be delayed.



About the Author

I have been a car nut since the days when Rob Walker and Henry N. Manney, III graced the pages of Road & Track. Today, I use my trusty Miata for TSD rallies and occasional track days at Lime Rock and Watkins Glen. If it moves on wheels, I’m interested in it. Please follow me on Google + and Twitter.

  • Rick Danger

    +1 Steve!

  • AaronD12

    You know, a seminar might be exactly what people need. Set up in a corner of the showroom, add some refreshments, charge up some EVs for test drives, and get someone who knows EVs (likely an EV owner!) to come and chat and field questions. I’m sure many of the EV advocates like myself wouldn’t mind taking an hour or two on a single Saturday each month to do this… for some small compensation, of course. (No fair comping us free oil changes!)

    • Steve Hanley

      Those are some pretty good suggestions, Aaron. The way to get people over their fear of electrics is to let them get in one and drive it and find out how good it is. Roughly 90% of electric car owners say they will buy another. There must be SOMETHING good about them to make people feel that way.

      It reminds me of when the Austin America first came to the US. It had an MG engine and front wheel drive, two things my gearhead friends and I thought were pretty cool. A few of us went down to the BMC dealer in Boston to check it out.

      We were met by a salesman who INSISTED the car did NOT have front wheel drive. He even got his manager, who agreed. We were unceremoniously asked to leave the showroom before we scared the other customers!!!!

      There is a Chevy dealer in Montreal who sells more Volts than all the rest of Canadian Chevy dealers COMBINED. How does he do that? He has a separate showroom staffed by highly trained sales people, most of whom drive a Volt as their personal car. They take away the fear of the unknown and sell a ton of cars as a result.

      Dealers will need factory support to follow that example. Shame on the factories for ignoring this critical part of the sales process. : – (

  • tfortea

    you can milk around this discussion but the underlying problem is the RANGE. if that increases everything about EV vehicles will come into plan. My thought is letting the gas stations rent EV batteries so all the vehicles will have the batteries like a plugin piece and go to a gas station and swap it. this is the way forward. you need to “buy the energy and use” it and not “store it and use”.

  • Jim Seko

    99% of auto dealers give the rest a bad name.

  • MarkRavingMad

    Helpful trick: lets say you’re buying a Chevy Volt (probably the most commonly misunderstood plug in vehicle). Go to the service department and ask to make an appointment with the Volt-guy. pretty much every dealership is gonna have a designated guy (or even 2) who they had to get trained and certified specifically to actually work on the EV’s and hybrids. This guy can answer your questions. He’s not a salesman, and can’t/won’t talk dollars and cents like the salesman you’ll need to talk to when you actually buy one, but he can almost certainly answer your questions.

    • Buzz Smith

      Also ask if the dealership has an EV sales specialist. I was hired by the #1 Chevy dealer, with no car sales experience, due to my in-depth knowledge of the Volt. They even let me pick my title, which is “EVangelist.” The salespeople who don’t want to spend time educating a buyer on all things EV, just send customers to me. I sell everything here, but my heart belongs to the Volt.