Car dealers are a major barrier to the spread of electric vehicles

A new study by Aarhus University, Denmark and the University of Sussex has found that car dealerships and sales personnel are a major obstacle to the switch to electric vehicles (EVs) in the Nordic region and possibly beyond.

The study, published in Nature Energy, shows that EVs are at a disadvantage at the point of sale in comparison with petrol and diesel vehicles across Northern Europe. This is largely due to car dealerships misinforming shoppers on vehicle specifications and omitting EVs from the sales conversation, with a bias towards selling traditional, internal combustion engine vehicles (ICEVs) instead. In 77% of the car dealerships visited and stocking EVs, the salesperson did not discuss the existence of these vehicles.  Geographically, the research team calculated that outside of Oslo, the chance of a consumer purchasing an EV based on their dealer experience was less than 15%. And in some cities, notably Malmo, Lund, Copenhagen, and Aarhus, it was 0%. 

Lead author of the study Gerardo Zarazua de Rubens from Aarhus University, commented: “The evidenced misinformation and omission of EVs within the sales conversation hinders the ability of mass market consumers to consider electric vehicles as a purchasing option, and potentially even remain incognisant of EV’s existence. These results stress the need to revisit transport policy and incentive schemes, if the Nordic countries are to remain committed to EVs as a means of achieving low-carbon transport.”

Electric vehicles have great potential to contribute to decarbonisation by reducing emissions of the transport sector, which accounts for one-fourth of energy-related global greenhouse gas emissions. Countries in the Nordic region are known for being international leaders in the area of energy and climate policy, however, their policies still overwhelmingly incentivise petrol and diesel vehicle sales, with the exception of Norway.

The researchers also found that policy and signalling from government and industry affect EV purchase at the point of sale. These create deterrents for car dealers to promote and sell EVs, with market conditions favouring ICEVs instead. For example, the only country to have reintroduced taxation of EVs, Denmark, had its sales of EVs stall.

Co-author Lance Noel commented: “The effects of national transport policy were clear, while at the dealerships.  Dealers consistently were looking to sell the product that was easiest to sell and had the best benefits for consumers, which outside of Norway, was almost exclusively an ICEV.  It’s clear that if governments want consumers to purchase EVs, then governments need to make it more beneficial for consumers, otherwise the dealers will always revert to the cheaper, easier ICEV.”     

Professor Benjamin Sovacool, Director of the Centre on Innovation and Energy Demand (CIED) at the University of Sussex, and one of the authors said: “Switching to EVs won’t happen without the right incentives and market conditions. The likelihood of people buying an EV is strongly influenced by what happens at the point of sale where EVs are currently at a disadvantage. Nordic countries need more progressive action in this area if they want to achieve their ambitious targets. And if dealerships are a barrier there, they are likely an even greater obstacle in other countries with less ambitious energy, transport and climate targets”.

The study highlights the need for policymakers to develop tax systems that address the capital costs of EVs rather than the cost of ownership. Furthermore, it calls for industry and business to recognise the need for training schemes for dealers to improve knowledge and sales technique around this new technology.

There is a need for systematic improvements in how governments and industry push EVs downstream to consumers.

Zarazua de Rubens explained: “Without a level-playing field there is little to no incentive for dealers to sell and consumers to purchase EVs.”