Connecticut is running a contest to boost sales of electric vehicles: The dealer that sells the most electric cars between now and July gets an award. There's no prize money, but the contest is part of an effort to meet an ambitious quota.
Car salesman Joe Quistorff just sold a plugin hybrid car (a car that can run on either gas or electricity) a few days ago.
"My sales effort was actually fairly simple, fortunately," he said. "These are the kind of people that buy those vehicles."
The buyers knew they wanted an electric car and had done their research. But not everyone is like that, and Connecticut needs to start selling a lot more zero emissions vehicles (fully electric, so no plugin hybrids.) Last October, Connecticut signed an agreement with seven other states to have 3.3 million of these cars on the road by 2025. There's a long way to go, said Jim Fleming, president of the Connecticut Automotive Retailers Association.
"Those sales are extremely low, they're in the hundreds, and last year in Connecticut we sold 370,000 vehicles so it's a very very tiny percent," Fleming said. "We have got to begin selling in the thousands."
The idea is to reduce air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, and give the young electric car market a boost. This isn't the only push for electric cars: Last year, the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection announced around $135,000 in grants to build 56 public charging stations, on top of around a hundred already in place. Nationwide, drivers with electric cars or plugin hybrids can get up to $7,500 in tax credits, depending on the model.
But getting more drivers to go electric is still going to be hard. Even the car companies need convincing, said Fleming.
The companies don't make a lot of electric cars, and dealers have to buy them from the manufacturers, then sell to customers. If a company doesn't think car buyers in Connecticut will buy their already-limited stock, they'll just sell it to a dealer in a state that's a safer bet, like California, as Fleming explained.
"It's sort of like the chicken or the egg: we need to sell more in order for the manufacturers to recognize that this is a good market."
The cars also cost a lot more upfront, although drivers can save on gas and maintenance costs in the long run. Then there's the issue of electric cars not being a really mainstream technology: the National Research Council noted recently that the U.S. doesn't have a lot of electric cars, so people still have questions like “are electric cars safe when going through puddles” or “are electric cars powerful enough for freeway driving?”
A report from the consultants Navigant Research forecasts that not even California, currently the largest market for electric cars, will able to reach its 2025 goals.
But as the states try to make that 3.3 million number, the report says we'll be hearing a lot more about programs to promote electric cars going forward. In particular, because there could be potential fines for car makers, the companies will be partnering more with the states in the coming years, said John Gartner, research director at Navigant.
"They don't want to produce vehicles that aren't sold and they're not ultimately in control of who buys their vehicles," Gartner said. "And so they're going to asking the states to say, 'look it's one thing to set a mandate, but how about some support to actually make it possible?'"
As one example, Gartner pointed out that California lets certain alternative fuel cars use high occupancy, or carpool, lanes.
But there's another question: are electric cars actually better for the environment? Ozzie Zehner, a visiting scholar at the University of California Berkeley, used to be an electric car proponent.
Zehner said he was wrong.
He said electric cars don't rely on fossil fuels, but building them requires rare minerals, and we need fossil fuels for that. He pointed to a 2010-report from the National Academy of Sciences, part of which looked at electric cars. The report mentioned that selling more electric cars would probably boost demand for certain metals and cobalt, and that for electric cars to be truly clean, the U.S. needs to make a dramatic shift to renewable energy sources like solar power.
Zehner said people should know the whole process for making electric cars, instead of focusing on the fuel.
"Electric cars rely on magical ways of thinking about the very real tradeoffs that affect people's lives," Zehner said. "Subsidizing car culture with tax credits is not the way to help the issue of climate change, which is a symptom of a much deeper, underlying problem, which is too many people consuming too much."
To that, Alex Kragie, deputy chief of staff of the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, said fighting climate change isn't the only goal.
"It’s probably going to be more important to more folks that they’re getting to save money on their fuel costs, than it is that they’re going to reduce emissions."
Kragie emphasized the award for car dealers is not meant to push one technology over another.
"We do know that the market is really at a tipping point," he said. "What we do want to do is shine a little bit more light on this nascent industry."