ITS-Davis Researcher Eric Cahill Zeroes in on Ways to Fast Track Plug-in Electric Vehicle Sales

Why aren’t there more plug-in electric vehicles (PEVs) on U.S. and California roadways?

Transportation Technology and Policy doctoral candidate Eric Cahill asserts that new car dealers hold the key, with a supporting cast that includes auto manufacturers and policymakers also playing important roles. Eric describes his findings in a recently published UC Davis Institute of Transportation Studies (ITS-Davis) working paper entitled, “New Car Dealers and Retail Innovation in California’s Plug-in Electric Vehicle Market.”

Cahill’s research examines the market challenges facing plug-in electric vehicles (PEVs)—cars that demand far more from retailers than anything that came before.

His research explores why some new car dealerships are reluctant to sell and market PEVs, even though many PEVs are more profitable for dealers than conventional cars in the same size category. Cahill visited car dealers and spoke with owners, salespeople, customers, automakers, electric utilities and others, to understand the barriers and drivers behind PEV sales and to consider whether dealers have the resources to sell PEVs effectively.

The California New Car Dealer Association provided access to dealers throughout the state. To gauge customer perceptions of the dealer experience, Cahill relied on data from J.D. Power, a partner in the study. He also collaborated with the Center for Sustainable Energy to gather feedback from PEV buyers on how well dealers meet needs unique to PEV buyers.

Cahill’s analysis showed that for PEV buyers, the dealer experience falls far short of customer expectations. Cahill believes this arises out of market challenges inherent with substantially new and different products. “Dealers have evolved to sell vehicles that look and act a certain way,” he said. “When you introduce a product that may look roughly the same but involve customers doing things differently – like plugging in, dealers have to come up a steep learning curve. That lag in learning may greatly affect the pace of consumer adoption and success of the product.”

Cahill hopes to get out in front of potential negative sentiment towards Zero Emission Vehicles (ZEVs) generally, including PEVs. “You can poison the well by disappointing early customers who don’t get the support they need to unlock the unique value that PEVs bring,” said Cahill.

Bringing these issues to the forefront will also help highlight successful ZEV dealers, ultimately bringing best practices and retail innovations to light. These practices include new approaches for training sales staff on clean vehicle technologies and new tools for equipping dealers to better serve PEV customers. For example, some of the more pioneering dealers designated seasoned, tech-savvy sales people as PEV product specialists to sell the car. Many of these “PEV geniuses” drive PEVs themselves and know the technology inside and out from their own first-hand driving experience.

Before pursuing his Ph.D. at ITS-Davis, Cahill earned a B.S. in Aerospace Engineering from the University of Southern California, and master’s degrees in Engineering & Management, and Technology & Policy from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He served as an officer in the U.S. Navy, and worked for General Motors, Boeing, and Quantum Fuels Systems. He is also founder and president of Adaptiv LLC, a consultancy specializing in new product introduction, regulatory policy, and strategic marketing for advanced clean vehicles.

The majority of funding for Cahill’s research came from a California Energy Commission grant. He received additional backing from the University of California Transportation Center, via a federal University Transportation Center grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation in partnership with Caltrans.

Cahill’s research on retail innovation could help accelerate change in the way automakers and dealers market and sell PEVs – changes, Cahill hopes, that will bolster the market for zero emission transportation alternatives.

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Cahill’s ITS-Davis study, “New Car Dealers and Retail Innovation in California’s Plug-in Electric Vehicle Market,” links:

Links to the two-part GreenLight blog on Eric’s research: