Customer Service, Executive Insight

Getting into the Car Biz by Getting the EV Experience Right

The continued retirement of traditional fossil-based generation, coupled with the increased deployment of low-carbon generation resources, has led to a greater focus by regulators and legislators on carbon emissions from the transportation sector.

Policy makers looking for additional methods to limit global warming have begun partnering with electric vehicle (EV) manufacturers and dealerships as well as utilities to help drive increased consumer awareness and sales. In the past, providing cash incentives in the form of post purchase rebates or tax credits provided a significant lift for other emerging technology sectors, and the same can be applied to EVs. 

Utilities benefit from the predicted increase in EV sales as it will increase load and offer a mobile storage platform to balance variable renewable generation loads. Plus, utilities can help their customers make better-informed decisions, while increasing customer satisfaction scores and supporting local businesses. By leveraging their unique relationships with the residential and business customers within their service territory, utilities can position themselves as trusted advisors and information resources for customers interested in advanced transportation. This type of program would also help the utility satisfy local community groups by demonstrating a commitment to the environment.

For many utilities, this type of initiative could harken back to the early part of the last century when local utilities helped customers “electrify” their homes by marketing early electric appliances designed to replace their traditional gas lamps and manually operated appliances. Now, instead of marketing new-fangled toasters, vacuum cleaners and refrigerators, utilities can lead by helping their customers make cleaner and less expensive decisions on how they choose to fuel their vehicles. Here are opportunities for utilities to provide an exceptional customer service to people shopping for EVs.

Moving to Mobile

Consumers are already accustomed to shopping online—from toys to toiletries. Why would EV shopping be any different? To simplify and enhance the EV buying experience, utilities should consider providing a digital platform that helps customers assess options and make smart decisions. Working together with local dealerships, the utility could provide prospective EV-buyers with a detailed, mobile-enabled listing of EV models currently available at local dealerships. This supports local economies by helping increase traffic at dealerships served by the utility, and customers looking at making an informed purchasing decision. Another feature of this informational campaign could be providing a comparison of total ownership costs for electric vehicles versus traditional internal combustion vehicles.

Ride and Drive Events

Utility-sponsored ride and drive community events allow customers to kick the tires and test drive an EV, as well as help them understand if EVs fit their lifestyle and transportation needs. Many large corporations and government offices have shown willingness to host events and to promote them to employees. These types of utility-branded events provide organizers, dealers and manufacturers with a large group of educated professionals, many of whom fit the demographic for potential EV owners. When hosted at a large corporate campus, follow-up surveys of ride-and-drive participants indicated an increased interest in EVs as well as an increase in first-time EV purchases.

Partnering Up

Utilities can also consider collaborations with public officials, state and federal agencies, and environmental groups to advocate for tax rebates for EV purchases, as well as additional financial and non-financial incentives. Some states and cities have implemented incentives such as access to HOV lanes, reduced or free city parking, reduction or elimination of sales taxes and lowered vehicle registration costs for EVs. These innovative incentives have helped stimulate the market for EVs.

Variable Rates

To encourage charging at times most beneficial to the grid, utilities should consider different types of variable rate structures that motivate EV owners to charge their vehicles when demand for energy is low and excess capacity is high. These initiatives allow utilities to separately meter the charging station, and provide valuable insight into the charging behavior and use of EVs across their service territory.

Given the recent announcements on the fall release of the Chevy Volt, capable of a 200-mile range at a price below $30,000, and Ford’s commitment to a 2021 release of its self-driving car, the transportation sector is clearly undergoing rapid technological change. In addition, the U.S. transportation sector has now overtaken the electric grid to become the largest source of carbon emissions. By talking to customers now about these new types of cleaner transportation technologies, utilities can position themselves for success in the rapidly changing landscape of transportation.

About the Author: Thor Hinckley is senior program consultant at CLEAResult.