In the US about 30% of all emissions come from the transportation sector with about two-thirds of that from personal vehicles. The emissions from an EV vary, based on how clean the electricity charging the EV is. (Union of Concerned Scientists has a great calculator where you can explore this.) In Wisconsin, where we still get 55% of our electricity from coal, an EV emits 37% less carbon that the typical gasoline vehicle. The emissions reduction is even better in states with cleaner electricity.
Transitioning from gas vehicles to EVs will help us reduce our emissions. The faster the transition the better.
EVs have other advantages: gas costs at least 2X as much per mile as electricity as a fuel, even at today’s cheap gas prices. EVs have fewer moving parts so maintenance costs are lower—another savings for consumers. Plus EVs are clean, safe, quiet and responsive—all of which makes driving fun again.
Sounds great, doesn’t it? Surely all that means consumers are lining up to buy these vehicles, right?
Well, not exactly.
And that’s where the déjà vu comes in. As is the case with all sort of energy efficient products from LED bulbs to furnaces to industrial motors, consumers are not always persuaded by better products that cost less over the long run.
I spent decades in the trenches on traditional energy efficiency programs. I know well the frustration that comes from consumers choosing an old, inefficient technology when a better option is available. The EV market looks a lot like any number of energy efficiency markets did in the 1990s and early 2000s. Similar to the challenges we faced promoting various high efficiency products:
- Consumers are hesitant about a new technology
- Influential market actors—manufacturers, salespeople, repair shops—are hesitant too, still more comfortable with the familiar, less efficient models
- Advocates emphasize the features that matter to them (like emission reductions) rather than the benefits that will delight consumers
I’m guilty of the latter in this post—I started with an explanation of why EVs are a great climate solution, instead of talking about how great it is to drive a car that can idle in the garage without jeopardizing your family’s health. But no more! The best way to accelerate EV sales is to learn from energy efficiency efforts, particularly market transformation programs (the efforts where we sought to change the way vendors sold and consumers bought some product category).
What can EV advocates learn from efficiency’s market transformation efforts?
First and foremost, we need to engage the vendors. EV advocates will tell you that it’s a challenge to work with car dealerships but old folks like me remember that it was also a challenge to get hardware stores to carry compact fluorescent light bulbs, and that it was a challenge to convince appliance manufacturers to produce high efficiency refrigerators and clothes washers. Changing how vendors do business is always a challenge, especially if the old way is still profitable. The best strategy here is an opportunistic one: work with whoever is willing now and welcome in others when they see the light. (A competitor’s success can be particularly enlightening—many a reluctant vendor joined our efficiency efforts after witnessing the successes their competitors were seeing in the program.) Focus on who’s in and presume the others will follow. A local dealership selling a high proportion of EVs is a dealership of the future; if you showcase them as such others will start to take notice.
Second, EV advocates need to talk more about the benefits of an EV. As noted above, these vehicles are
- Quiet–without a gas engine these vehicles are “hear yourself think” quiet. This feature is especially appealing when it comes to bigger vehicles like buses!
- Safe –EVs have a lower center of gravity, which makes rollovers less likely. There’s also no gas to ignite in an accident. Studies show they are as safe or safer than gas-fueled vehicles.
- Responsive –EVs deliver instant acceleration. Really, you’ve got to try it to appreciate the difference.
- Clean – without gas and oil there’s no stains in the driveway, no fumes polluting the air your family breathes.
- Less Expensive to Operate—EVs have lower fuel and maintenance costs. A recent NYC transit study found that EVs are more cost effective than hybrids or gas-fueled vehicles.
- Cool—high tech, fun to drive and sporty, EVs are increasingly the cool cars on the road. Rumor has it even secret agents are driving them.
It’s these benefits—or a by-product thereof—that will engage consumers and transform the US automotive market. For example, consumers got excited about front-loading clothes washers because the clothes coming out of the washer were less wet, and dried faster…which meant washing and drying cycles were equivalent, which simplified laundry time for families. Too, the washers weren’t as rough on clothing yet got out stains effectively. All of those were features people who owned the washers shared with others—features that mattered to consumers. Smart energy efficiency programs promoted those features (the non-energy benefits).
Similarly, we need to talk up the benefits of EVs—a vehicle that won’t spew toxic gases out its tailpipe. Ideally, we should all feature EV owners talking about the features they love; this will help us understand which features resonate with potential buyers.
And in this discourse we need to stop obsessing about charging infrastructure. Yes, as EV ownership grows we’ll need more chargers. But most people will charge at home most of the time—so as they buy a vehicle they’ll address their primary charging needs. And certainly communities should continue to support public charging stations and charging options for people in apartments and condos but there’s no need to go on and on about the need for charging stations. All that talk just makes people nervous about investing in EVs. I mean, imagine if we’d held press conferences to talk about the need to re-train HVAC contractors when we were promoting high efficiency furnaces—that would not have prompted confidence in the technology! Focus the public dialogue on the benefits of EVs and address the infrastructure needs as necessary with decision makers, rather than with the media.
Finally, I think there are lessons to learn about incentives. The energy efficiency industry was built on incentives—buying down the first cost of more expensive technologies. In some cases, incentives were vital—there was a time when compact fluorescents cost 10 to 20x the price of an incandescent bulb. In the case of EVs, though, the price differential is smaller. US consumers paid an average of $36,000 for a new vehicle last year and there are multiple EV options at or below that price point. Because the costs are more comparable I would urge folks to be prudent when thinking about incentives. Any time we offer consumers an incentive for buying something we shift the dialogue, often encouraging more skepticism. Instead of focusing on consumer incentives I’d encourage folks to think about initiatives that inspire salespeople to sell more EVs. Again, the energy efficiency industry offers a lot of market transformation examples that support this approach.
A fast transition to EVs will help us reduce greenhouse gas emissions; it’s a vital part of our climate change strategy. So let’s learn from energy efficiency and speed up this important transition!
Contact us to learn more about how Cool Choices can help you accelerate EV sales.
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