Last year was the best on record globally for electric vehicle sales, as bigger batteries, longer ranges, a greater diversity of makes and models—and yes, Tesla’s influence— propelled the EV market to new heights. InsideEVs.com reported 1.2 million plug-in cars were sold around the world last year, with a notable jump in the US.
These figures are all the more remarkable when considering that many customers—and even dealers—are still uneducated about almost all aspects of electric cars. Buying, charging, whether it can be driven in the cold, range anxiety, and other concerns still haven’t been totally demystified. Perhaps because EVs represent such a small percentage of overall car sales, automakers and dealerships haven’t felt any pressing need to become EV educators. Often salespeople aren’t adequately trained, and sometimes dealers don’t even have a single EV, let alone a selection of cars, on the lot.
Given all these obstacles, the burgeoning EV market owes a debt of gratitude to the unsung heroes of the electrification movement: Collective buying groups.
These groups not only use collective buying power to negotiate for bulk discounts, but also act as EV evangelists—”electronauts,” colloquially—working to promote adoption, educate consumers, and explain incentives.
In the US and Canada, EV group buys are usually organized by nonprofits and/or communities of early adopters to ask dealers and original equipment manufacturers for discounts in exchange for a group’s collective patronage. And they’re having an impact. In 2016, US advocacy group Southwest Energy Efficiency Project noted EV sales doubled and even tripled in communities where group-buying programs existed. Earlier this year, Colorado said group-buys would be a major driver in attaining its ambitious goal of having 940,000 EVs by 2030.
“The enthusiasm level and knowledge vary wildly from dealership to dealership”
“We were bringing people to the table who were already interested and much more likely to purchase,” said Ben Prochazka of the Electrification Coalition, a Washington, DC-based group working to accelerate Americans' adoption of plug-in EVs. His organization co-founded the influential Drive Electric Northern Colorado in 2013, and that group-buy model has inspired others like it across the US. (Now the organization is hoping to replicate the model with electrifying public fleets.)
Because the EV learning curve had proved too steep for the average consumer (and not lucrative enough for salespeople to bother reading up), some dealerships and automakers saw the value of the group-buy right away. As Prochazka recounted, allowing the group to remove some of the soft costs of customer acquisition—marketing, public education, test drives, explaining local and federal incentives—convinced dealers and automakers to offer discounts. It also sped up sales.
Sean Mulkerrins runs the EV program at the Quirk Chevrolet dealership in Braintree, MA, one of the top-performing dealerships in the US for Chevy Bolt and Volt sales, with 50–60 sales a month. He said group-buys have been a major source of business. “When [the customer] walks into the dealership they’re ready to buy,” he said.
Quirk Chevrolet is a partner to Mass Energy Consumers Alliance, whose Drive Green buying group has resulted in 300 EV sales in Massachusetts and Rhode Island since 2016. One deal in particular saw Chevy Bolts being leased for $150 a month—cheaper than most gas guzzlers.
Unfortunately not all dealers are ready to greet EV-minded customers, said Anna Vanderspek, who helps run the Drive Green program. “The enthusiasm level and knowledge vary wildly from dealership to dealership,” she said, pointing to an investigation conducted in mid-2016 by US environmental organization Sierra Club in which undercover volunteers were deployed to dealerships to see how they handled EV customers. The report concluded EVs weren’t displayed prominently, and were difficult to locate on dealership lots. When they were located, they often hadn’t been charged—meaning no test drives. Salespeople also failed to inform undercover volunteers of local and federal rebates and tax credits.
Education is crucial to moving EVs, even when buyers are highly motivated. Buying groups have historically filled this gap, but dealerships will need to step up as EVs grow out of their niche market.
That’s why the Montreal-based ChargeHub evolved from a failed group-buy effort to take on an educational role. In addition to managing rebate programs for automakers and utilities like San Diego Gas & Electric, ChargeHub also acts as a sort of outsourced how-to guide on owning EVs. “We take the role of EV education and charging, which are integral steps in the EV sales process,” wrote ChargeHub co-founder Francis De Broux in an email.
De Broux also said ChargeHub is about to release a dealership portal in California with EV advocacy group Plug In America, which aims to train salespeople on the finer points of owning an electric car.
The kind of external support the EV market currently enjoys has been mostly motivated by electronauts’ simple desire to help the environment (and perhaps feed their natural inclination to evangelize new technology). “There’s a lot of need for outreach and education from trusted sources that aren’t financially benefiting,” said Prochazka of the Electrification Coalition.
Auto manufacturers and dealerships have benefitted from the goodwill of EV evangelists who’ve gone forth to spread the gospel of the electric motor.
Still, the electronauts don’t seem to mind. They see it as a collective movement to make environmental change, and maybe get a good deal on new technology. Either way, they know there’s power in numbers.
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Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the Electrification Coalition is based in Colorado. In fact, the group is DC-based.