How Do You Get Consumers to Buy Electric Cars?

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The MIT panel (from left) Stephen Russell, a Massachusetts state EV advocate; Watson Collins, manager of business development for Eversource Energy; Britta Gross of General Motors and Bob Perciasepe of the Center for Climate Energy Solutions. (Photo: Jim Motavalli).

CAMBRIDGE, MASSACHUSETTS—Electric cars face a lot of headwinds in the summer of 2015, not least of which is the long run of low oil prices (which, of course, are starting to rise now). Consumers, wary about new technology and heedless of the fact that energy prices are cyclical, have used cheap gas as an excuse to flock back to big SUVs.

What’s to be done, if you think that EVs will save the planet? A panel addressed this at the MIT Media Lab this week, during the New England Motor Press Association’s fifth annual awards get-together.

“We have 16 different zero emission models, and we’ve been operating with a field of dreams dynamic,” said John Bozella, the head of Global Automakers. “But the reality is that there’s a lot of complexity in developing these markets. We’re looking at a 17 million sales year, and though EV sales are also up, they’re not keeping pace with the market.”

Bob Perciasepe, president of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, thought we needed some perspective. Zero-emission EVs are a big hedge against a warmer planet, he said. “We’re already experiencing climate change. Last year was the hottest recorded on Earth since we began keeping data in the late 1800s. The first four months of 2015 are also the warmest in the history of the Earth.”

The second panel at MIT included (from left) Bryan Garcia of the Connecticut Green Bank, Bob Zimmer of Toyota, Stephen Zoepf of MIT and Anup Bandivadekar of ICCT.
The second panel at MIT included (from left) Bryan Garcia of the Connecticut Green Bank, Bob Zimmer of Toyota, Stephen Zoepf of MIT and Anup Bandivadekar of ICCT. (Photo: Jim Motavalli)

The impact is fairly stark, Perciasepe said. A Hummer produces 10 tons of carbon dioxide annually on a well-to-wheels basis, a hybrid car about three tons and an EV less than a ton. An EV, then, is 90 percent more climate-friendly than a Hummer, but also 60 percent better than a hybrid. But we have 170,000 gas stations and just 9,000 public EV chargers.

Britta Gross, director of advanced vehicle commercialization policy at General Motors, said the company is investing billions because “we have every reason to be driving electric.” But she lamented that with oil price volatility, “consumers change their minds almost instantly about what vehicle they want to buy.”

Consumers have put a billion miles on 70,000 Chevy Volts, but a Volt driver can and will trade up for a Suburban if energy costs aren’t really a consideration. That’s hugely aggravating for automakers trying to plan out a product portfolio. Not that GM doesn’t want to sell a lot of Suburbans. Its plants are adding shifts, and crossovers are in big demand. Who knows, though, how many people will want to buy the Bolt, GM’s new 200-mile, $30,000 EV?

The forthcoming Chevy Bolt: How will the public respond to a 200-mile, $30,000 electric car?
The forthcoming Chevy Bolt: How will the public respond to a 200-mile, $30,000 electric car?. (Photo: Jim Motavalli)

Bob Zimmer, director of the energy and environmental research group at Toyota, isn’t convinced that cars with plugs is the way to go. Toyota has, instead, heavily invested in fuel-cell technology. “It’s hard to expect people to switch to cars that are radically different from what we drive today,” he said. Hydrogen cars fuel up in three to five minutes, and then have 300 miles of range. That’s a potent argument, but hydrogen will need infrastructure. There are few stations outside California now, though Toyota is subsidizing a rollout in the Northeast.

Dr. Anup Bandivadekar, program director for passenger vehicles at the International Council on Clean Transportation, said the U.S. was in the lead on EV deployment, but “now the movement is global in nature.” The countries that offer the biggest incentives, have governments involved on the city, state and federal level, and have organized effective public-private partnerships (such as the California Fuel Cell Partnership) are the ones that can tell the best success stories. “There’s a reason that 20 percent of the auto market in Norway is EVs,” Badivadekar said.

Electric cars charging in Oslo: a model for the world.
Electric cars charging in Oslo: a model for the world. (Photo: Chris Hamby/flickr)

Norway’s the model! Electric car owners get rich subsidies, no tolls on highways, free parking and ferry rides, free charging and bus lane access. The Nissan Leaf and Tesla Model S have both been the bestselling cars in Norway some months, and the country may have 50,000 EVs on the road this summer.

Stephen Zoepf, a doctoral researcher at MIT’s Sloan Automotive Laboratory, sees car-sharing as the way to expand EV awareness and takeup. He shared his own Chevy Volt through Boston’s Turo, and found people asking basic questions about it — “How do I switch into gasoline mode?” — that indicated a certain cluelessness about how they work. If people can try them in car-sharing operations (Enterprise is a big proponent) then they’ll be clued in, Zoepf said. “We have to get them into the hands of people who will have a great experience with them, and that’s not everybody.”

“Transportation is the second largest greenhouse gas sector,” said Bryan Garcia, president and CEO of the Connecticut Green Bank. “And 80 percent of those emissions are from light-duty vehicles [cars and smaller trucks],” he said. “That’s why this is important.” Garcia added that consumers used to think that solar PV didn’t work, and maybe they’re at that same point now with EVs. But with incentives and education from the Green Bank, Connecticut’s solar takeup rate saw a huge spike in just a few months.

EVs won’t sell themselves. The automakers, green groups and think tanks have a big job ahead of them in convincing Americans that the time to plug in is now.