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Car dealers trash-talk electric cars: study

Nik Martin
May 23, 2018

During visits to more than 80 auto dealers in five Nordic countries, researchers were, more often than not, told not to buy electric vehicles. Their study calls for clearer government policies on newer car technologies.

China Peking Golf GTE hybrid
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/Z. Haiyan

Car salespeople turned consumers off buying electric vehicles (EVs) during two-thirds of enquiries by a team of mystery shoppers. 

Posing as potential car buyers, researchers from a Danish and British university made 126 enquiries about EVs at 82 auto dealerships in Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Iceland and Finland.

In one case, a shopper was told that one electric car would "ruin you financially," while another was told that it "goes only 80 kilometers per hour (50 miles per hour)," which is less than half of its true top speed.

'Dismissive and deceptive'

"The range of responses included dismissing the electric vehicle altogether, not including it in the sales pitch, or knowing nothing about it," the study's lead author Gerardo Zarazua de Rubens told DW.

In three-quarters of the shopping experiences, the team from Denmark's Aarhus University and Britain's University of Sussex weren't even told that the dealership sold electric cars.

Even in Norway, the undisputed leader in sales of electric cars, salespeople still pushed the mystery shoppers towards gasoline vehicles in 40-50 percent of cases.

Read more: Norway tops global sales of electric cars

The findings, published in an article in Nature Energy, reveal that car dealerships could pose a significant barrier to the global shift towards EVs, amid worsening climate change.

"You could tell immediately where dealerships were very supportive of electric cars because the vehicles were displayed prominently," said co-author Lance Noel.

"One on occasion, I walked into a dealer and they had a Nissan Leaf that was parked in the very corner of the showroom, behind a van. Even the information about it was behind the car."

Putting profits first

Researchers noted that profit motive was likely the main reason that salespeople steered the researchers towards gasoline and diesel vehicles.

"Dealers want to make the best and quickest sale and they want to give consumers the best product. And right now it's much easier to sell gasoline vehicles" Noel told DW.

Gender and the age of the salesperson also likely played a part, the researchers surmised.

"An old conservative man maybe doesn't have the same enthusiasm for electric vehicles as would younger salespeople."

Read more: BMW increases R&D spending on e-cars, autonomous vehicles

Rather than solely blaming the attitudes of car dealerships, the researchers said disparate government policies across the five Nordic nations had likely contributed to the negative responses.

Norway takes the lead

On the one hand, Norway has made giant steps in shifting its economy towards the use of electric vehicles through a system of incentives — including subsidies, the use of bus lanes and free parking.

Last year, more than 50 percent of all new cars sold in Norway were electric or plug-in hybrids, with dealers reporting that demand outstrips supply.

Norway's booming electric vehicle industry

But the other four Nordic countries have yet to give EV's priority over their fossil-fuel equivalents, and Denmark appears to be moving in the opposite direction, becoming the first country in the world to tax electric vehicles.

In response to the measure, sales have fallen from nearly 5,000 in 2015 to around 700 in 2017.

Denmark's mixed signals

Denmark may be more suited to electric vehicles, due to a more advanced electric charging infrastructure. But still, the taxing of EVs has not only put off consumers, during the mystery shopping enquiries, most car dealers avoided mentioning them at all, the researchers said.

Despite Finland's more scattered population, colder climate, and strong commitment to other sources of energy like biofuels, dealerships were more supportive of electric cars than in Denmark.

Sweden is somewhere in the middle, because it offers incentives for electric company cars, but not for private individuals.

"So this has created a lot of disparities in the penetration of electronic cars in these countries, and I think that was reflected in the salesmen's approach," de Rubens told DW.

Read more: Volvo to go all electric, hybrid by 2019

Researcher Noel said despite these countries taking the lead in moving away from the combustion engine, most of their consumers are unaware of the benefits of electric vehicles, and remain addicted to petrol and diesel cars.

"The gasoline orientation of dealers was extremely high across the Nordic countries, despite them being perceived as more green. If we carried out the study across the world, it might be even higher than that."