Shifting Gears for the Long Fight

By LUCAS DIXON

2014 is shaping up to be an interesting year for electric transportation. Coming off several years of tremendous excitement about electric vehicle (EV) product releases, we now are entering a stage of persistent hard-fought growth. Electric cars have come of age and now threaten the status quo in several ways. Not unexpectedly, vehicle electrification is now seeing challenges from several new areas.

Nowhere is this more apparent than with Tesla’s current struggle with auto dealerships in states across the country. This is a struggle for the entire EV movement, and not just a problem for Tesla’s business model. The EV movement needs Tesla in very important ways, and needs to join in the fight for some key aspects of Tesla’s approach.

First, direct purchasing vs. the traditional dealer model. This is the most contentious and litigious issue facing Tesla and the EV movement. It’s critically important because —

  1. Electric vehicles are different from internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles, and traditional dealers are not ready for them. I agree with Tesla when they state that salespeople currently selling ICE vehicles are not able to provide the very important education needed by consumers when considering the purchase of an EV. It’s much more likely they will push a potential buyer to an ICE instead. Once this happens, that buyer is lost for six to 10 years. The importance of this issue cannot be overstated. When we lose potential EV buyers, we lose them for a long time. People just can’t and don’t buy cars that often.
  2. Electric vehicles are expensive, and every buyer deserves to have the car exactly as desired. Setting aside the matter of how ridiculous it is that in 2014 car manufacturers don’t do a better job managing inventory, the inability of a new car buyer to specify features in an item with a high sticker price is crazy. Most of us customize our morning coffee more than we are allowed to do with a new car! On-demand manufacturing, on Tesla’s model, makes electric cars cheaper by reducing holding, transport and dealer-prep costs. Consumers get exactly what they want. Win-win.
  3. We buy things differently now. Tesla understands this and is able to put car-education centers in locations near their potential customers. Instead of undertaking the real estate costs of large car lots, Tesla opens a shop in the local mall. This allows the consumer to learn about the EV without pressure to buy a car on the spot. This correlates to how we, as consumers, now buy goods, especially expensive goods. Tesla needs this tool and the EV industry needs Tesla to educate the public.

Second, specialized service. Tesla realized that specialized service is the key to happy, lifelong customers, and that the existing dealer infrastructure is nowhere near ready to service the EV marketplace. Instead of trying to retrain and retool existing shops, Tesla has launched a distributed network of corporate-owned repair shops. This allows for tight control over repair standards, ensuring that every buyer has a top-notch ownership experience. This is crucial for our movement as one bad experience shared on social media can turn off a ton of potential buyers.

Third, infrastructure and bold actions. Tesla has shown the willingness and ability to invest in really well-conceived, barrier-busting infrastructure that allows for the growth of vehicle electrification. Tesla is also a bold actor: evidence the recent announcement that they will build the world’s largest lithium-ion battery manufacturing facility, right here in the American Southwest (see page 12). Big bets are what it is going to take to bring EVs to the next level, and we are lucky to have Tesla willing and able to make those big bets.

So what is the ASES Sustainable Transportation Division doing this year to help in the good fight? Glad you asked and we welcome you to join us. First up will be to hold a successful ASES National Conference, co-located with Intersolar North America in San Francisco, July 6-10. SOLAR 2014 will offer multiple sustainable transportation sessions and a workshop hosted by nationally recognized electric-drive-train expert Dave Erb. We also hope to have a vehicle showcase and an encore ride-and-drive. After the conference we will focus on fostering stronger division relationships to connect division members with professionals across the country. We want to bounce ideas among the best and brightest working on these important transportation issues. Make 2014 the year you join us in the Sustainable Transportation Division, and see you at the conference!

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