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Automakers team up with states to get Americans to buy more electric cars

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‘Drive Change. Drive Electric’

Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

In 2017, nearly 200,000 electric cars were sold in the US. That may seem like a lot, but that’s less than 2 percent of the 17 million total vehicles sold over the course of the year. But while EV sales are definitely growing, the electrified market is still decidedly niche. This has spurred a new marketing campaign to persuade the American public to give batteries a chance.

Sixteen major automakers are teaming up with seven Northeastern states to support a new advertising venture with the aim of getting Americans to buy more electric cars. The goal isn’t to make everyone a Tesla owner. Organizers will place a heavy focus on hybrid vehicles, both standard and plug-in hybrids, in the interest of casting as wide a net as possible.

“We believe that people owe it to themselves to get behind the wheel of an electric car,” says Steve Douglas, senior director of environmental affairs at the Alliance for Automobile Manufacturers. “They should talk to people who drive electric cars because we believe an electric car should be on their short list.”

The campaign, dubbed “Drive Change. Drive Electric,” launched today at the New York International Auto Show. Car companies involved include BMW, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, Ford, General Motors, Honda, Hyundai, Jaguar Land Rover, Kia, Mazda, Mercedes-Benz, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Subaru, Toyota, Volkswagen, and Volvo. Participating states are New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Vermont, and New Jersey.

It will be a “completely integrated campaign to reach as many consumers as possible,” says Elaine O’Grady, senior policy advisor at the Northeast States for Coordinated Air Use Management. That includes advertising, social media, and strategic events, she added. Organizers wouldn’t say how much money would be spent on the campaign or how the total amount would be split between the automakers and the states. “It’s certainly not disproportionate,” Douglas says.

Automakers are increasing their investments in electric vehicle production. Ford said it would spend $11 billion on the technology to build up to 40 new battery-electric and hybrid vehicles by 2022. Daimler has said it will spend at least $11.7 billion to introduce 10 pure electric and 40 hybrid models.

The fear is that many of those new models will fail to appeal to US consumers, who are trending toward trucks, SUVs, and crossovers in an era of cheap gas. “The last thing we want to see is EVs sitting on dealer lots, unsold,” Douglas says. “It’s not enough to build a lot of great cars. People have to buy them.”

Of course, auto manufacturers are guilty of mudding the message around environmental sustainability. The New York Times recently reported that the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers submitted regulatory filings in Washington, DC, that “cast doubt on the negative effects of tailpipe pollution on human health.” Automakers are lobbying regulators to roll back the aggressive rules adopted by the Obama administration to rein in tailpipe emissions, a major contributor to air pollution and global warming.

Asked whether those reports conflict with the message of the campaign, Douglas said, “I think you’ve seen a commitment from the automakers to reduce climate change emissions. I think electrification of vehicles is clearly a part of that.”