Are EVs too reliable and too quiet?

You never know what problems you’re going to get into with a new technology. EVs are zero-emissions vehicles. They eliminate gas purchases. Their range is getting better all the time.

But now they’re running into two obstacles: They have so few moving parts that they don’t require much maintenance, which makes dealers reluctant to sell them. And they’re so quiet that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is thinking of requiring them to carry noisemakers at low speeds so they don’t threaten blind people or cyclists.

The New York Times ran a story last week, “A Car Dealers Won’t Sell: It’s Electric.” Reporter Matt Richtel found that dealers around the country are reluctant to sell their customers EVs and sometimes even steer people away from them, for a variety of reasons. For one, they don’t seem to understand the new electrics very well. Often the customers find they know more about the cars than the dealers do.

Two, they’re are still dealing with “horror stories” about people having trouble with the cars’ driving range. But third and perhaps most important, because electric vehicles are basically so simple and have few moving parts, they don’t require a great deal of repair – which is where dealerships make most of their profits.

Industry insiders and those who follow the business closely say dealers may also be worrying about their bottom lines. They assert that electric vehicles do not offer dealers the same profits as gas-powered cars. They take more time to sell because of the explaining required, which hurts overall sales and commissions.

In 2014 Consumer Reports published a study based on a secret shopper survey in which they visited dealers around the country and inquired about EVs. They found one dealer in Bayside, Queens, who wouldn’t even show them a Toyota Prius he had in stock. Another Ford dealer in Manhattan swore to them that Ford didn’t have an electric model. In fact the Ford Focus comes in an all-electric version.

Richtel interviewed Charge Across Town, a California nonprofit that is encouraging the use of electric vehicles. In August they arranged an event in San Diego where dealers would showcase their electric vehicles to prospective buyers. To their surprise, they found the dealers very reluctant to participate. Only a few dealers showed up and, to everyone’s astonishment, wouldn’t let the prospective buyers test-drive the vehicles or even sit in the cars.

Despite dealer reluctance, however, electric cars seem to be on the way up. Aston Martin has a fully electric that is due out in 2017. The Chevrolet Bolt is expected to be the first affordable, long-range full electric due out in 2016. The fully electric Porsche Mission E will have a 300-mile range and a 15-minute charging capacity, due out in 2019. And of course Tesla’s gigafactory in Nevada is ahead of schedule, aiming for the production of 500,000 $35,000 Model 3s by 2020. BMW calls it “Freude am fahren” – “the joy of driving” – since driving an electric is such a new and different experience. CleanTechnica predicts that electrics will be 50 percent of the market by 2050 and likens the internal combustion to cigarette smoking – a habit that will soon be regarded as unhealthful and outmoded.

But what about the problem of sound? The NHTSA has fielded complaints from groups representing the blind and vision-impaired saying that the noiseless electric cars present a hazard to handicapped pedestrians. They don’t make enough noise to warn people of their approach. The NHTSA has studied the matter and found that hybrids are 19 percent more likely to be involved in accidents with pedestrians than gasoline-powered vehicles. The regulators say there would be 2,800 fewer accidents involving pedestrians and cyclists if electric vehicles had some kind of motor noise to serve as a warning.

The Administration has been working since 2013 to require “quiet cars” to add some kind of audio alert when travelling at low speeds. The proposal would require EVs made by companies like Tesla, Nissan, Toyota, Ford and General Motors to add some kind of audio alerts when they are travelling at 18 mph or less. Under a 2010 law passed by Congress, the NHTSA was supposed to have the matter settled by January 2014. However, the automakers have complained that the devices are too loud and will be too complicated to operate. NHTSA administrator Mark Rosekind said in July that the regulations would be finalized by this month, but it now appears that the government will be unable to meet the deadline.

So the question of whether EVs should make noise will still be hanging in the air. And dealers may still be reluctant to sell electric vehicles to their customers. But there is no question that EVs are coming along fast and will soon be making up a larger and larger share of the market.