In mid-December, Nissan vice president of sales Al Castignetti admitted that the company had been “arrogant”  in its assumption “that there were people just waiting for the [Nissan LEAF ] who would raise their hands and say, “Give me a LEAF, give me a LEAF, give me a LEAF.’”
The company has been upfront about taking the blame for its poor LEAF marketing. In October, vice president Andy Palmer told me  Nissan has been “pretty lousy” at dealing with its vital early adopters. False assumptions do plague the electric car industry—look what’s happened with Coda . But it’s one thing to acknowledge the truth publicly, and it’s another to follow through with change.
Nissan took a big step forward by hiring Los Angeles-based Chelsea Sexton , co-founder of Plug In America and a consultant who listens to what the early adopters are saying about their cars and the companies that sell them. Sexton, a sometime PlugInCars.com contributor, is candid about what needs to be fixed.
“That statement about ‘arrogance’ suggests that what I and others have been saying for quite some time is starting to sink in,” she said. “Nissan had very ambitious sales numbers that were never realistic. The stark reality is that it looks worse when it happens to Nissan compared to some startup. LEAF marketing needs to get far more emotional. Every company has been approaching selling EVs as if they’re an uber-practical purchase, and they never have been that. The ads don’t convey the cool experience of driving electric, and that absolutely has to change.”
It’s fair to say that Sexton isn’t a fan of the polar bear ads—she’d rather see spots that emphasized the fun (and high-tech) driving experience. “The companies keep thinking that EVs are a ‘green thing,’ but environmentalism is not primarily why people are buying these cars, and never has been,” she said. “Plus, that message is counter-intuitive in the red states.”
That’s important, because states—especially Texas—that went heavily for Romney are also leading the nation in public charging station deployment.
Plug-in car owners wasted no time in organizing themselves into communities, which operate lively online message boards. A lot of it is troubleshooting—why isn’t my car charging?—and Sexton says it’s important for Nissan and other carmakers “to involve themselves in the communities that the drivers created.”
And while they’re online, they can also be more realistic about range and charging times. “That’s a huge issue for all the companies, says Sexton, who’d also like automakers to admit that EVs aren’t for everybody. “They’re useful for 95 percent of the things that people do, but not the other five percent,” she said.
Automakers tend to stay off the non-corporate online forums—Tesla employees are discouraged, for example—and Sexton thinks that’s a big mistake, because timely intervention could clear up some frustrating problems before they mushroom.
“You need to go to your current user base to figure out how to improve the car,” Sexton said. “Two important groups are the owner community and industry veterans.” She speaks from experience, because she worked for General Motors from the late 1990s to 2001 during the EV1’s short life (as documented in Who Killed the Electric Car?), and at that time the company was an enthusiastic participant in the budding forums.
Coda, Sexton said, is “the most tragic example” of a company not listening to the veterans and early adopters. “They’re local in southern California, which means that many of us have been beating on their doors saying, ‘Let us help you. The concept needs work,’” Sexton said. “They’d take us out to lunch—they were good about that—but when it came time to receiving actual input nothing happened.”
For Nissan, Sexton would like to see more owner events and public advisory boards (like the one she served on for the Chevy Volt ). “They want to make sure that people understand that these electrics are not just like every other car—they’re a whole new and exciting experience.”
Seat time is important to fill the ranks of electric car owners. Arun Banskota, CEO of the Texas-based eVgo charging network, told me last summer , “When you merely ask people if they’re considering buying an electric car, you get a positive response from just five to 10 percent. But if you show those same people the cars that are available, give then some information and maybe offer a test ride, the number goes up to 55 to 60 percent.”
How can the feds help? Sexton is supportive of President Obama’s proposal (in his 2012 budget request) to expand the current $7,500 income tax credit, and make it payable at the time of purchase, but she doesn’t think upping the top amount to $10,000, as Obama proposed, is a priority.
Instead, Sexton has some common-sense ideas: Discourage dealers from marking up electric vehicles above the MSRP , cut off rebates above a certain price point ($65,000 perhaps), and exclude tiny “compliance” car programs from federal credits (partly through volume minimums for manufacturers with no lease-only deals). They’d howl like stuck cats if you took the latter step, but it would certainly encourage larger-volume production.
Sexton laments that some EV programs—the Ford Focus electric is an example—are practically invisible. And she and I agree that the beneath-the-radar compliance phenomenon is a shame, because some of the "now you see them, now you don't" cars, especially the Honda Fit EV—are very good indeed. “The Fit is the best EV I’ve driven that didn’t have a Tesla drivetrain,” she said. “It’s a great car, but not too many people will ever know it.”
None of this is rocket science. The automakers know most of these ideas make sense. Electric cars aren’t SUVs or minivans, and need to be treated like something new. To paraphrase the great man, if Henry Ford had done things the same old way he’d have been selling people faster horses.