Electric Road Trip

Auto dealers quake at EVs' cut at their service biz

MISSOULA, Mont. — The Electric Road Trip found a handy place to charge up at the Karl Tyler Chevrolet dealership near our hotel here on Saturday, before our climb through Lookout Pass into Idaho.

This has been common. Car dealerships listed on PlugShare, an app for locating charging stations, have welcomed us.

Yet it's still a little surprising to see the welcome mats rolled out. Buying and selling electric vehicles is a tough business right now. There was always a chance an otherwise friendly dealer would let the air out of our tires.

One of the most challenging shifts dealers will be grappling with if EVs take hold is the auto service business. Combustion engines have a lot of parts; electric car parts are modular. There are fewer of them to fix.

"No doubt service revenue will go down, because EVs contain about 40% fewer parts," Frederiek Toney, Ford Motor Co.'s president for global customer service, told the J.D. Power Auto Summit in San Francisco last February, according to a WardsAuto report. All-electric cars have one-tenth the moving parts of gas-powered cars, need no lubrication, and have no emissions controls to replace as the car ages (Energywire, Sept. 25).

Bill Underriner, who owns a clutch of auto dealerships in the Billings, Mont., area, was happy to have us plug in at his Volvo store, but grim about his service business in a world of electric cars. Given all the pressure on dealers to lower new car prices with rebates, he said, revenue from the service shop is essential to a healthy bottom line.

"I'm worried what this means for dealers' futures," he said. "I have 50 service technicians." He and his family predecessors have been selling cars since the end of World War II, so his is a long-term view.

But in Montana, at least, a look at Karl Tyler Chevrolet suggests a day of EV reckoning is somewhere over the ridgeline.

My wife, Marty, and I entered the dealership past a long line of Silverado and Colorado pickup trucks and SUVs. And no wonder.

Sales Manager Brennan Skrutvold said the dealership had sold 12 vehicles on the day we arrived, all trucks and SUVs, the vehicle of choice for Montanans who travel long, rugged routes in all weather to reach hunting, camping and fishing destinations or commute into Missoula from off-highway homes. The heavy vehicles claim 95% of 200-vehicle average monthly vehicle sales.

"We live on a ridge that overlooks the Bitterroot Valley," he said, 50 miles south of Missoula. "For me, and for what my pursuits are outside of work, the electric car doesn't make sense."

EVs need to match performance and price with conventional competitors, he said. "Electric vehicles will probably take off, but in the state of Montana, it's going to take time because it's such a huge state with only 1 million people. You can go a long ways in between places."

Until competitive EV pickups arrive, the market will be slow to adapt, Skrutvold said.

"The issue is, how can we best suit our customer base? And right now, that's not with electric vehicles."

Electric Road Trip

E&E News reporters take a 6,000-mile road trip in an electric vehicle to explore how the switch from gas to electric transportation will change the economy, environment and daily life of America.
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