Portland Auto Show’s Dynamic Tension; Consumer Pull v. Dealer Resistance

 (Photo- Thanks to Joe Mayer.  On the right is Oregonian Reporter Scott Learn talking to Charlie Allcock of PGE.  The distinguished looking guy on the far left is me (ha) speaking to Cindy Laurilla, Manager of Real Estate for PGE.)

Okay, I’m tired. I just spent the last four days manning the ClipperCreek Booth at the Portland Auto Show, speaking to consumers, networking with dealers and industry insiders, breathing the air, taking the temperature, trying to keep my mind open to determine “the truth” about where we are as a going as but a small slice of the industry; in Zen Buddhism, this is known as exercising the beginner’s mind.  Before I quickly shift gears into the week, I need to share some observations that we all must process as we continue to promote this technology vociferously.

The first is we need to stop allowing ourselves to be pigeonholed as “green”.

The Portland Auto Show has put our technology in the “Eco-Center” for the past three years.  Our real name is the “Advanced Vehicle Technology Center.” If smoke comes out of your tailpipe in 2013, you are not driving an advanced vehicle.  You are driving old technology and reading yesterday’s newspaper.  To rephrase a Palinism, a putting lipstick on a pig does not make it less porcine.  I thought of this as I looked at the “new” Chevy Corvette.  We need to force our hand.  If we’re paying for exhibiting, we should drive the proper message.  We must be clear that these cars are not about being green, they are about superior driving experience, interactivity, and the future. Should we have booth babes? Ah, I won’t even go there.

The media.  We had an Oregonian reporter, Scott Learn, (whose name seems appropriate for someone in journalism) come to the Eco Center and speak for an hour to many knowledgeable people- including Charlie Allcock of PGE who was recently listed as one of the top one hundred electrifying leaders nationally.  Was he quoted in the article? No.  “Are Electric Vehicles Poised to turn Corner with Public?” was the title.  “Too Pricey.”  “Too much Plastic inside.”(?) “What if we run out of juice?” were all issues stated in theopening paragraphs. But the best line of all, from GM’s spokesmen Kevin Kelly, “The biggest issue here is cost, let’s just be honest.”  Then more than halfway through the article things got rosier and some follow-up comments were hopeful.  Kelly added,  that the cost is dropping and “we’ll see generational improvements and we’re working on those as fast as we can.”  He likened it to other new technologies like cell phones and the range and other performance metrics are ticking up as the costs fall.  So all is not doom and gloom, but we have a lot of convincing- of the media, consumers and dealers- to do.

Tesla needs to be at these shows.  Consumers demand to see the Tesla and the Auto Dealers refuse to let them into these dealer-sponsored shows because they are not part of the “franchise” network but do direct selling.  So what?  This show is about consumers, and the Tesla perfectly exemplifies advanced vehicle technology.  If the Dealers won’t allow Tesla to be present, we should have them (even if its only obliging Tesla owners) rent space at a neighboring parking lot and show people the cars there.  Seriously.

What really continues to frighten me is the fact that Auto Dealers do NOT want to sell these cars.  Walking the main floor, NOT ONE AUTO DEALER HAD INFORMATION ABOUT THE $7500 FEDERAL TAX CREDIT.  Excuse me?  They said such things as, well not everyone qualifies and so we can’t tell them about it. Huh? As someone versed in the art of persuasion, having litigated hundreds of cases in state and federal courts, and having been a consumer for over fifty years, since when is a huge potential savings on a product not critical information for decision making?  The only takeaway is that there is an ongoing force or forces at work the dealership level (and beyond) to NOT sell these cars.  What that source is and what is sustaining it in the face of consumer interest remains to be clearly defined, but it is clearly present.  We must work around the dealers recalcitrance whenever possible.

ECOtality no longer provides free charging stations in the Northwest- whether to promote furtherpublic infrastructure or to give to residential customers.  It happened.  The market is starting to shift and EVSE providers will now have an opportunity to enjoy open competition.  Dealers no longer have the luxury of pointing their customers to one source (because its easy to sell “free”) and the consumer and local electricians will win. Period.

People are infinitely curious about these cars.  The most common questions are- how long do they take to charge?  What is their range?  What do you think of your LEAF? How much does electricity cost?  People have reasonable questions and the dealers are not answering them, particularly about charging.  Members of the EVSE industry and public advocates need to fill this gap.  My main response to consumer questions is for them to drive the cars and see what they think.  Test drive a Volt and a LEAF.  Speak to other owners.  The public is tired of paying gas prices that tap $200-$600 per month of their income.  They are hungry for alternatives.  We should feed them!

Thank your local electric utility (if they show up at the car show with a booth). PGE had a booth all four days with people answering questions, showing customers the LEAF, sharing information.  Your electric utility is your new “dealer” when it comes to advanced vehicle technology.  They have nothing to lose and everything to gain- just like the consumer.  Thank them for putting resources into this movement toward electrified transportation.  They get it.

Comments?  What do you think?






8 thoughts on “Portland Auto Show’s Dynamic Tension; Consumer Pull v. Dealer Resistance

  1. Paul Scott

    Barry, thanks for the great write up.

    Since I sell LEAFs for a Nissan dealer in Los Angeles, I’m curious about these dealers you mentioned who do not try to sell these cars. It’s not like that at our dealership since we have about 5 people qualified to sell the LEAF and we all compete with each other to get the most customers. We’ve sold out of the 2012 cars and are now waiting for the 2013s to arrive. I have a decent list of folks wanting to trade their 2011 LEAF for the new 2013 model. I also have several who read about the new lower price and want to get in on that deal.

    If, as you suspect, most dealers do not want to sell this car, or any other EV, then maybe we should encourage a decent journalist to look into the matter, interview a few random sales staff, and try to come up with the reasons why. This would at least give us the opportunity to chime in on the issue depending on the reasons given.

    I suspect it’s a combination of ignorance, lack of high profitability, and minmal back end profits.

    1. driveevs Post author

      First off, I know it’s never good to generalize, but certainly the trend is disturbing.
      I think in the Portland area there is one Nissan Dealer whose sales staff are cranking and really devoted to this technology. Which is part of the problem with a dealership organizational structure- it’s prone to variability. I think the profitability issue is the overriding issue from the dealership perspective- although customer service/happiness must be factored into that profitability model at some level. Perhaps if customers had the ability to hold the dealer accountable for providing information about the cars things would change- but we live in a caveat emptor world.
      This means there’s an opportunity for folks like you to keep focusing on EVs and drawing all the business as word gets out.
      Even though I sell charging stations, what I really did this weekend was sell the cars. Many people expressed thanks for getting solid information- because they weren’t getting it on the floor!

  2. Lisa Adatto

    Neat blog, Barry! Very helpful for the Portland community. I have had mixed experiences at the dealerships. Some have been excellent; the staff have been very excited about knowledgeable about the cars. Others are the opposite. I would like to see more information about the charging stations and which ones are up and running at any given time.

    1. driveevs Post author

      Hi Lisa! Thanks for the comment. The dealer identity confusion will continue on for a while. I’ve been spending time today, trying to explore the right successor model to ECOtality- from the consumer’s perspective, from the dealer sales perspective, and from the electrical service guy’s perspective. For example, who should sell the EVSE? Should it be the dealer? Should the dealer just refer a customer to the electrical shop and let them handle everything (and capture the profit for the EVSE sale as well?) Which option provides the best consumer experience and pricing?

      As far as info on charging stations, I still rely on Plugshare and Recargo for smart phone apps. They are starting to get more granular in the nature of the information they provide- including photos!

  3. Krisztina Lackey

    1. Pigionholed as “green” – I would like Electric cars to be marketed as patriotic, powerful, a bold step into the latest and greatest technology around. I’m tired of seeing car commercials stating that they have totally redefined whatever car they are selling and then it’s still a gas car at the end of the commercial.
    Why don’t we have a filmmakers contest to make commercials completely changing the image of electric and alternative fuel cars.

    I kinda felt like the Portland Auto Show pushed EV’s off into a corner. The luxury and high end sports cars should have included a Tesla Roadster right next to the Lotus in the roped off area upstairs.

    2. Media – I think if we could get a couple of Tesla to show off their cars by taking a few journalists for a spin, that would get their interest piqued. It’s too bad that Scott Learn didn’t include Charlie Allcock’s statements, but this is not a hopeless cause. I’ve got some ideas on how to make this EV technology get out of it’s niche.

    3. “Too Pricey.” My husband and I had been looking for a replacement for our well loved Honda Accord. I tried several dealerships, for fuel efficient cars, Nissan Leafs, Chevy Volts (Leafs were all sold out, and the 2011 models were still $24K and the tax rebate had already been used up.)We even looked at leasing but the monthly cost was more then we could do. We had about given up when another shipment of Think’s came through (at $14K before the tax rebate). It was the monthly car payments at $280/mo. when I was paying $250 for gas/mo. that made us grab at the chance.

    4. Tesla being marginalized because the it’s a dealer-sponsored show? That is a lame excuse. They could easily change the rules to make an exception for the greatest cars manufactured in the USA.

    5. The tax rebate is a huge deal! It changes everything! Agreed that they should have information about it. I think this whole resistance that we observe has to do with thinking in the short term verses the long term. Auto dealers, conservers, auto makers have everything to win from non-gas cars, but there is this upfront cost that posses a barrier.

    6. ECOtality and earned our fury. Their prices are outrageous, because unless your EV charges fast, it will cost more then gasoline prices today. The fact that some stores like Walgreens provide free charging has earned our respect we have changed our buying practices because of it. I hope stores that provide free changing stations will be amply rewarded and get an edge in the game.

    7. Agreed. People are ready for alternates to cars shackled to/ at the mercy of high gas prices.

    8. What I think? We should deal not only with educating people, but also changing the way EV’s are perceived. We should market them differently and totally different demographics. And we should see if we can’t find some way to get the Tesla into more auto shows. Can’t wait for their less expensive version to come out.
    -Krisztina Lackey

    1. driveevs Post author


      This is a complex process- selling consumers in a media environment that might be categorized as apathetic at best. That being said it is the consumer’s enthusiasm that ignites the debate more often then not. Each of us who owns an EV is an ambassador to the technology and we should strive to share them for test driving. I doubt Tesla will be accepted by the Auto Dealers- it’s just completely against their interests and Tesla likes its underdog identity. However, we can get Tesla owners to share their cars off-site and work around dealer resistance.

      Enjoy your ThinkCity! And thanks for you comment!

  4. PvlGrn

    Very good article. Education by owners for potential owners is key. I recently facilitated a presentation titled “What’s It All About: A Year in the Life of an Electric Car Owner” with a panel of 2 LEAF and 2 Volt owners answering the typical questions. Attendees learned lots and had fun doing it. Keep up the good works.

  5. Paul Scott

    FYI everybody, we’re selling used 2011 LEAFs for right at $20K, and some a little under that. Every year, the used price drops, but these cars with 2-3 years on them will drive perfectly for at least another 6-8 years. Considering the savings in gas, that’s a bargain! Every time the price of these used cars goes down a thousand dollars, another ten thousand people can afford it.

    It’s important to keep in mind that we now have the production capacity to manufacture 400,000 plugin cars per year. We’re probably going to sell about 100,000, a good number, but far from what we should be selling.

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