A Magazine About Food, Art & Exchange In Midtown Kingston, Published By The Hudson Valley Current.

Electric Vehicles: Closing the Hype Gap?

By Melissa Everett

The New York Auto Show serves as a launch event for the coming year’s new car models. This year’s show sent a loud and clear signal about electric vehicles: that  the auto industry is investing, inventing, and preparing to scale up electric transportation—at some point in the future. How soon? That part is not so clear.

Investment and invention were apparent at the 2019 show, for instance, at Kia’s  press conference featuring Chief Operating Officer, Michael Cole. After reporting on sales of popular models, with a video of tough pickup trucks sliding through mud fields, he pivoted into announcing a new product—a mystery vehicle on one side of the stage, covered with a silk drape. This radical design, he said, is the product of a collaboration between Kia and MIT—electric and autonomous, the company’s future. 

When the drape was lifted, a hundred photographers descended on the Kia HabaNiro, a silver car built on the frame of the Kia Niro—one of the best EV models. There is a bright red interior, red and silver wheels, a red hatchback, and butterfly doors that swing up. When the car is in autonomous mode, the windshield becomes a splashy entertainment display. The electric powertrain is designed with a motor under each axle to allow for all-wheel drive. The car gets 300 miles on a charge. Or it would, if it were produced for anyone to drive.

From the Kia extravaganza, I walked over to the Volkswagen exhibit. Of all the car companies that should be taking electric vehicles seriously, you would think VW would. Somehow, their main electric model, the eGolf, had not made it to the VW exhibit. I buttonholed a young trade show worker and asked why. She answered, “It must not be selling. But I don’t really know. We exhibit staff fly into each show and just talk to the public about what we see set up when we get there.”   

On to Ford, where the Fusion EV had been discontinued pending a new model’s planned release in 2020. Ford’s big event was a tribute to the Mustang with free hot dogs. The only sign of electric spark on display was a poster for the soon-to-be-produced electric SUV—planned first for the European market.

Chevy Bolt? Check. Nissan Leaf? Check. Hyundai Ioniq? Check. Most automakers had one electric model on display (amid the many, many tough pickup trucks).  

That same sense of underwhelm is visible out in the EV marketplace, even in the Hudson Valley. At least three major “secret shopper” studies have been done to look at dealerships’ commitment to electric vehicles. Consistently, salespeople have downplayed EV’s readiness for market and shown limited knowledge about them—if there were even EVs onsite to try to sell. Automakers are responding to the political pressure to make EVs, but most of the supply has been going straight to California. 

Sustainable Hudson Valley’s Drive Electric program has been hired by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) to pilot an EV sales training with a half dozen dealerships. Every one of them has had at least one “champion” who has taken a lead in learning about EVs and selling them. While there are genuine concerns about the range of some older models, these dealers have stepped up and developed strategies including selling to fleets and generating interest on social media. Some are seeing the trend. Some admit they’ve been shamed by well-informed customers.  

But vehicle supply has been an issue for half of these businesses at some point. Auto industry journalist John Voelcker comments, “Right now, companies are selling electric cars at a loss, so their commitment is exactly what they are legally required to do, no more. This could very well change in the next couple of years as battery prices drop, and some of the companies are actively engineering new models now.” At the moment, though, we are in a doldrum.     

Seth Leitman, Drive Electric’s program manager, is a longtime industry watcher who happens to live near a Tesla distribution site where, at times, more than a dozen cars can be picked up by buyers in a single evening. Seth notes, “Tesla is in a class by itself because they not only have excellent technology, they have a consistent commitment to it, and enthusiasm.” In a recent announcement to investors, Tesla founder Elon Musk reported that 63% of trade-ins associated with Tesla purchases were not luxury cars. That means people are finding ways to make the switch to EVs, and favoring sources where they are marketed with consistency, enthusiasm, and expertise.   

There are exceptions. Nissan says its newest Leaf models are selling as fast as they are produced. Shipments have risen recently to the Northeastern states, where there is an eight state commitment to getting a million on the road by 2025. But shipments do not equal sales. If there was ever a time when it makes sense to spread the word that electric vehicles are ready to drive, that time is right now.