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A truck loaded with Tesla cars departs the company’s manufacturing plant in Fremont, California.

Dawn of the electric vehicle age? One car shopper’s experience.

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From auto shows to America’s public consciousness, electric vehicles keep popping up.

Entrepreneurs and established automakers have fired up assembly lines. Scientists are racing to improve batteries. Investors are banking millions on the hope they’ve found the next Henry Ford. It’s a burst of innovation not seen since the dawn of the auto age.

Why We Wrote This

Many people tout the coming electric vehicle revolution. Yet EVs still make up only 1.8% of the car market. Will the early 2020s end up being a pivot point for the industry, or will EVs remain a novelty?

And yet, when EV sales reached a record share of the car market last year, they stood at 1.8%, or less than 1 in every 50 cars sold. All automakers except for Tesla lose money every time they sell an EV.

In the 1800s, cars powered by steam, gasoline, and electricity were all vying for supremacy. Gasoline won out, but now the field is becoming fluid again. Governments from the United States to Europe to China are pushing emissions regulations and tax incentives to help EVs take off. 

Our correspondent finds himself at the Chicago Auto Show, as Indiana resident Mary Beermann goes on a quest to buy her first electric car. Despite the obstacles the industry faces, she's almost overwhelmed by how many models are on display. More are coming.

All of which leads to a pressing question: Is Mary in the vanguard of the next great automotive revolution? Or will EVs remain the province of a relatively small number of kilowatt connoisseurs?

Seated for the first time in an electric car – a Ford Mustang Mach-E so new it doesn’t have a sticker price yet – Mary Beermann has a broad grin on her face. She struggles to open the doors, the trunk, and even the cover to the connector plug – a boomer flailing in the push-button dawn of the electric-car age.

But none of this seems to daunt her.

“I think this is it,” she says. “This is my next car.”

Why We Wrote This

Many people tout the coming electric vehicle revolution. Yet EVs still make up only 1.8% of the car market. Will the early 2020s end up being a pivot point for the industry, or will EVs remain a novelty?

It’s partly my doing, really. A few weeks earlier, Mary had called me to ask for friendly advice about buying an electric car. I had almost bought one three years earlier. So when I was ready to write a story on whether electric cars are winning over the public, I asked Mary if I could tag along while she went through her buying process. And that is why, after a ridiculously early flight from Boston, I am standing with Mary at Ford’s outdoor demo area at the Chicago Auto Show in the rain.

Around the show, as in America’s public consciousness, electric cars keep popping up. New entrepreneurs, as well as established automakers, are tooling production lines to build them. Scientists are racing to improve batteries. Investors are banking millions on the hope they’ve found the next Henry Ford. It’s a burst of innovation not seen since the dawn of the auto age.

Even the federal government is involved. In a bid to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the Biden administration in early August set the ambitious goal of having electric vehicles make up half of U.S. car and light truck sales by 2030. That’s twice the market share that many analysts see as feasible by the end of the decade.

To achieve that, or even get close, EVs are going to have to break out from their niche, which skews male, young, and affluent, and attract Middle America – everyone from new Generation Z drivers to seasoned baby boomers like Mary. It won’t be easy. 

Ann Hermes/Staff
Mary Beermann test-drives a Volvo XC40 Recharge, an electric vehicle, at a dealership in Schererville, Indiana, to see if she will join the growing number of EV owners across the country.

“The consumer has to see a greater value than in the [gasoline-powered] vehicle,” says Tom Libby, an automotive analyst at IHS Markit, a global market research firm. “Now, the only brand that is seeing that is the Tesla.”

At the auto show, Ford has pulled out a lot of stops to showcase its EVs. Usually, the show takes place in the winter and all the action is on the show floor inside. But at this pandemic-delayed and scaled-down summer event, while the conventional cars are on the convention floor, Ford and other automakers have moved their EVs outside for test-drives. An army of Ford ushers and presenters shepherds a long line of showgoers through a tent to show off the Mach-E and the Lightning, Ford’s first all-electric pickup truck due out next spring. Interest is high.

“I’m just curious,” says Juan Carlos Rodriguez, a civil engineer from Chicago, peering at the Mach-E. He cares about the environment and the cost. He currently commutes to work 17 miles one way in his Mercedes SUV, which is great on the open road, but has awful mileage when he’s stuck in traffic. 

After the tent presentation, with lots of flashing lights and sound effects, we take a ride. John Grant, a Ford demonstrator, starts by putting the Mach-E into “unbridled” mode and accelerates in a special lane. The force pins us to the back of our seats. Mary screams. 

The ride on Chicago streets is more mundane. Mary likes the expansive view she gets from the front seat. She’s already checked, with her own measuring tape, that she can raise the driver’s seat as high as in her Ford Escape, the vehicle she is seeking to replace.

The rest of the morning is a blur of EVs and salespeople. Mary test-drives Volkswagen’s new electric ID.4, which feels more Volkswagen than pathbreaking EV. And Mary doesn’t like the twisting shifter on the column of the steering wheel. Upstairs on the show floor, she looks at Chevy’s redesigned electric Bolt, a Kia, a Lexus, and other models recommended by her mechanic. Instead of the search narrowing down her focus, her choices are proliferating. More than 20 models of EVs are on display this year and double that number are expected next year. 

All of which leads to a pressing question: Is Mary in the vanguard of the next great automotive revolution – will we all look back on the early 2020s as the time when the industry finally started to pivot away from the internal combustion engine, or will EVs remain the province of a relatively small number of kilowatt connoisseurs?

Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP/File
The 2021 Ford Mustang Mach-E electric SUV is shown at an auto show in Los Angeles.

In many ways, today is reminiscent of the early days of automobiles, when cars powered by steam, gasoline, and electricity were all vying for supremacy. Vehicles were expensive, so mostly wealthy people were buying them. Back then, the widespread opinion was that gasoline, steam, and electric vehicles would all find their place in the 20th century, says David Kirsch, business historian at the University of Maryland and author of the book “The Electric Vehicle and the Burden of History.” “The big surprise was ... only internal combustion really survived past World War I.”

Mr. Ford had a lot to do with that. He focused so keenly on cost-cutting that by 1923, the price of a new Model T was less than half the $850 price tag of the 1908 original. The value to people was so obvious – cheap transportation – that it became the automotive equivalent of a slam-dunk. Millions of Americans snapped them up. In the face of that breathtaking innovation in internal combustion engines, steam-powered cars died, and electric ones faded into the background.

Mary’s reasons for considering an electric – for buying a new car, at all – are more complex. Before her husband, Ron, died earlier this year, he talked about replacing their aging Ford Escape. Mary has also inherited a car from her mother, who no longer drives. It’s a low-mileage, 11-year-old Milan from Mercury, a nameplate that no longer exists. Mary doesn’t seem ready to embrace a dated car from an obsolete division of Ford as her vehicle of choice.

Maybe it’s the Milan’s champagne color. Or maybe she’s decided to step out on her own. Ron always bought Fords, because a family member worked for the company and could get him a no-haggle discount. “Now that Ron isn’t here, I’m thinking I should break out of the mold,” she says.

Mary came to the auto show with her niece, Ann McCurties, and her husband, Marshall, who have also spent the morning test-driving cars. Then they meet up and compare notes. Both millennials, the McCurtieses also liked the Mustang Mach-E, but they’re thinking of starting a family, so they’re more excited about a conventional Kia SUV. Then, a surprise:

“I don’t want to talk you out of an electric car, because it’s really cool,” Ms. McCurties tells her aunt. “But going electric requires a life change.”

“You are always [going to be] a little more tethered to home,” Mr. McCurties chimes in, referring to the need to keep it charged.

Drivers ages 18 to 44 are supposed to be big cheerleaders for EVs. While they make up a third of the conventional car market, they accounted for 42% of EV sales through May of this year, according to IHS Markit. Despite that, many millennials, like the McCurtieses, remain skeptical about the current technology.

It’s not just the range problem: The batteries usually last less than 350 miles before they need to be recharged. Except for the costliest chargers, it takes some time to replenish the batteries. And charging stations of any type are still relatively scarce in some parts of the country, especially outside big urban areas. Then there’s the price. The McCurtieses test-drove a conventional Bronco Sport, whose models start at $27,215. The Ford Mach-E is $42,895, though savings on gas and maintenance for an EV (no tuneups or oil changes) as well as government rebates can close that gap significantly.

Separately, Mr. McCurties expresses support for the idea of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by going electric. But “we don’t have the extra $10,000 for the eco choice,” he says. (A week later, Mary will surprise the couple by giving them her Ford Escape, leaving her just the Mercury.)

At this point, I’m having trouble concentrating on the cars. It’s past noon and I’m running on one plastic cup of 7UP and an airline pack of crackers. Two catering employees walk by rolling multitier carts filled with plates of something brown. The plastic sheets over the carts make it impossible to tell whether it’s meatloaf or chocolate cake. At this point, I’ll take either. 

Mercifully, we leave the show and decide to have lunch. Then we head to Valparaiso, Indiana, Mary’s hometown.

Northern Indiana is auto country. While Michigan gets all the attention because that’s where many of the cars are assembled, Indiana specializes in parts: engines, emissions systems, electronics, and so on. Hoosiers, in other words, know their cars.

The next morning, we drive to Team Chevrolet, a local dealership, to test-drive a Chevy Bolt. Christian Little shows off the revamped model of the electric vehicle, which General Motors has been selling since 2016. He answers Mary’s questions about the cost of a replacement battery (about $7,500) and pops the hood to demonstrate how it uses brake and window washing fluid but doesn’t need the oil or transmission fluid that conventional cars do. Then he asks Mary what power company she uses and pulls up a calculator on his phone to show her what it would cost to “fill her tank,” so to speak – $8.58. 

For the test-drive, Mary asks Mr. Little to take the wheel first. He demonstrates one-pedal driving, the mode in which electric cars start braking as soon as you lift your foot off the accelerator. (The car is actually recapturing its forward momentum to regenerate the battery, which gives the car a little more range. You almost never need to use the vehicle’s real brake.) And with the car’s adaptive cruise control, the Bolt can accelerate in traffic or come to a complete stop without human intervention. Mary asks how long it took to get used to operating the car. About a month, Mr. Little tells her. Tentatively, she takes the wheel and tries out one-pedal driving mode, then turns it off, then turns it on again. 

Ann Hermes/Staff
Mary Beermann checks out an all-electric Volvo at a dealership in Schererville, Indiana. She wants to get an electric car but has been stung by the price of them.

The T word – Tesla – comes up. The Palo Alto, California, manufacturer is the gorilla of the EV market in the United States, accounting for 4 of every 5 electric vehicles bought last year. Tesla also had 4 of the 5 bestselling models in 2020, with only the Chevy Bolt, at No. 3, keeping Tesla from a sweep. Still, Chevy sold fewer than 20,000 Bolts last year, less than a quarter of Tesla’s bestselling Model 3.

“People who are looking at a Tesla Plaid [a high-end Tesla model] for $100,000 are not going to be looking at a Bolt,” Mr. Little says. “Those are two completely different customers.” 

Tesla still appeals to the more affluent, according to IHS Markit. Overall, 17% of buyers of conventional cars earn $200,000 or more. For EVs (which basically means Tesla, since it dominates sales), the share of high-income buyers is double that – 36%. By branding the Bolt as a Chevy, General Motors is aiming at the middle class.

Later, I ask Mary about test-driving a Tesla. “I think they’re ugly cars,” she says. The closest dealership is Chicago, more than an hour away, so she’s not interested. Instead, over a tuna sandwich and potato-ham soup at the Viking Chili Bowl, she tells her mother about how the Chevy Bolt costs only $8 to charge up.

“And do you use a regular outlet?” asks her mother, also named Mary. (Some electric car owners do, although many speed up the process with a 240-volt outlet typically used for an electric clothes dryer. Chevy offers to install one for free for new Bolt owners.) 

Her mother goes on to reminisce about when she was a young girl and used to watch her father crank up their Model T. That crank kept many women from driving the early gasoline-powered cars because cranking was difficult and something women didn’t tend to do. Those who could afford electric vehicles continued driving them well after the Model T appeared, partly for this reason. This included Clara Ford, Henry Ford’s wife. He eventually solved the problem by replacing the crank with an electric starter. 

While Ford – and other major automakers – publicly tout electric cars as the future and are spending hundreds of billions of dollars to gear up for it, the current reality is starkly different. For one thing, all automakers except for Tesla lose money every time they sell an EV. That’s why Mr. Little, who has sold five Bolts, is paid a salary by the company to be the dealership’s electric evangelist. There’s virtually no commission on the Bolt. Also, consumers aren’t exactly beating down dealers’ doors to buy electric cars. Last year, EV sales reached a record share of the car market – 1.8%, or less than 1 in every 50 cars sold.

Yet most car companies are true believers in an electrified future. Jaguar says it plans to sell only electric cars starting in 2025. Volvo will be turning out only EVs by 2030 and GM by 2035. Other manufacturers are making similar commitments. 

Consumers who go electric often become evangelists. The enthusiasm of Tesla owners is legendary. Even Bolt buyers are devoted. “It’s fun to drive,” says Ralph Kleeber, a retired casino security director from Wisconsin, who attended the Chicago Auto Show and was considering replacing his older model with the new Bolt EUV. 

His enthusiasm is infectious. His grandson, Jacob, has his eye on a Ford F-150 Lightning, the electric truck. “It’s a little bit cheaper to operate,” he says.

But EV companies will have to do a lot more to win over Middle America. One possibility is that the technology has its Model T moment. A breakthrough battery with more range and lower costs would make EVs more competitive with conventional cars. Cheaper manufacturing costs would also help, although only Tesla so far has demonstrated the ability in the U.S. to cut costs on the factory floor. Chinese and European car companies are also competing hard, so a battery breakthrough or lower factory costs could come from overseas.

Another possibility is that a sustained surge in gasoline prices would make the EV’s lower operating costs even more compelling.  

Absent such events, however, the industry may need government help. The European Union and China have used tighter emissions rules to create EV markets that are bigger than America’s. The EU has also added a €6,000 ($7,000) incentive for EV buyers that, unlike the $7,500 U.S. federal tax credit, doesn’t run out after a company has sold 200,000 electric vehicles. (Already, Tesla and GM cars no longer qualify.) The Biden administration has talked about eliminating the 200,000 cap, turning the tax credit into a rebate, and increasing it to $10,000 for EVs manufactured in the U.S. and $12,000 for U.S. EVs built by union workers.

If successful, the incentives could jump-start EV sales. If not, U.S. automakers could be stuck with a big backlog of unsold electric cars.

“I’m of two minds. The sort of policy wonk in me says this is just about a managed transition,” using government intervention to move from one technology to another, says Professor Kirsch, author of the book on EV history. But “as a professor of entrepreneurship and someone who thinks a lot about capitalism, our history with managed transformations is pretty poor.”

Hundreds of first-generation electric vehicles, abandoned by a Chinese car-sharing service, are parked at a construction site in Hangzhou, China.

Two weeks after the auto show, I return to Indiana where Mary and I drive to Schererville. She wants to test-drive Volvo’s first full electric vehicle, the 2021 XC40 Recharge. 

Mary’s clearly done her homework, reading up on EVs and turning to YouTube reviews of the various cars. Her questions are sharper and more to the point. She wants to know about maintenance costs. Is there a spare tire? (To save weight, the Recharge is equipped with run-flat tires, instead.) What would it cost to lease the car?

Leasing could be a smart move. Because electric cars are expected to be dramatically better and possibly cheaper in a few years, many electric-car reviewers suggest leasing instead of buying one. Mary also takes the wheel more confidently, including the one-pedal driving option.

“You definitely have to get used to it, but it does – as you say – recharge the battery,” she says. “It’s a beautiful car. Absolutely!”

Later, we talk about what she’s thinking after weeks of researching and test-driving electric vehicles. “If someone handed me $100,000, I would say I would take the Volvo tomorrow,” she says. Also, “I don’t know why, I’m drawn by the Chevy Bolt. [But] I can’t justify $40,000 for a Chevrolet.”

“I think I should definitely test-drive a Mach-E,” she adds. “It was very comfortable and it’s a solid body.” Supplies of the electric Mustang are so tight that none of the dealers in the area has one, even for a test-drive. One dealer tells her of a Mach-E now being built, which she should be able to take out for a spin at the end of August.

The whole experience hasn’t turned her off from EVs but neither has it convinced her to make the switch, not even to the Mach-E she finds so cool. “I’ll test-drive it and two other [conventional] Fords and choose from them,” she says.

America is still waiting for that EV slam-dunk.

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