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Ford Mustang Mach-E vehicles at a Ford dealership in Colma, California, on July 22, 2022.
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After a home, buying a car is the most expensive purchase most consumers will ever make during their lifetime. The transition to electric vehicles by major auto makers is likely to make the process a little more stressful, at least in the early days of the EV era when many consumers are still under-informed on EV basics. If consumers are to be sold on the mass adoption of battery-powered electric vehicles, car dealers are going to be essential to the pitch. It’s the network of franchise auto dealers who provide education, service, and face-to-face sales, so companies like GM and Ford are working closely with them. But it’s a daunting moment for both sides of the car business.

“We haven’t had a shift of this magnitude in the auto industry ever,” said Robb Hernandez, president of Monterey Park, Calif.-based Camino Real Chevrolet. “The ground is still moving beneath dealers making decisions. The automakers are doing their best making this shift, but the regulation is more of the driving force of how we will all have to pivot.”

That includes his home state of California, where 100% of new car sales are mandated to be EVs by 2035.

“I can only speak for GM,” Hernandez said. “They are listening as we make these changes but the landscape is ever-changing at this point,” he said. But he added, “Most auto dealers are optimistic and excited for the changing landscape.”

As of late last year, 65% of Ford’s dealers had opted into the EV certification program (a little under 2,000, according to data shared by Ford), as it has started to make the role of car dealers central to the EV transition process. 

Many consumers want a streamlined process and virtually every transaction today has some online component, according to Brian Maas, president of the California New Car Dealers Association. But with the complicated nature of a vehicle purchase transaction (trade-ins, financing, purchase of extended warranties and other products), a fully online experience will only work for a percentage of car buyers. “The rest will still want to ‘kick the tires’ and take a test drive before investing $50,000+ in the average new car,” he said.

This preference is expected to hold true for EVs. A recent report from the California Air Resources Board (CARB) cites “customer choice,” “vehicle availability,” and “affordability” as keys to mass adoption, all of which require a critical role to be played by dealers.

“I think CARB understands that dealers are essential to the adoption of EVs,” Maas said.

He pointed to several factors. First, and most obvious, outside of Tesla it is franchised dealers who have to explain and sell this new technology to the mass market. Second, all the incentives adopted federally and in states such as California are administered by or through dealers. And finally, EVs won’t approach affordability in the short term without dealers making these funds available to consumers and explaining how these programs work at the point of purchase.

Kerrigan Advisors, which works with dealership groups on sales and acquisitions, noted that Ford, relative to some top global competitors, has a relatively large dealership network to manage through the EV transition. “To some, Ford’s approach is a way to weed out the smaller dealers who are unwilling to make the EV investment,” said Erin Kerrigan, founder and managing director. “Keep in mind Ford has over 3,000 franchises in the U.S.,” Kerrigan said. “By contrast, Toyota has only 1,482 and sells more vehicles than Ford.”

But she expects more Ford dealers will opt in at a future date, once they observe a meaningful consumer shift to EVs.

Timing of the EV transition is a concern

While EV sales are increasing rapidly — as recently as 2021, total battery-powered electric vehicle sales in the U.S. were under 450,000, but Kelley Blue Book says sales surpassed 800,000 in 2022 and are expected to top one million this year — dealers remain cautious about the timelines outlined by the auto companies.

“Despite significant increases in EV sales in 2023, dealers are largely skeptical about the OEM’s timeframes on the EV rollout,” Kerrigan said. ”Many say they expect the rollout to take twice as long as expected and EV market share to be half as much as projected by the OEMs.” 

Ford’s opt-in window will open again in 2027 for dealers that did not initially join. 

Using California as a model — with its timeline being the most aggressive – the process can begin to feel pretty squeezed, Maas said.

“I like to point out that this is the most significant change in personal transportation since we went from horses to automobiles early in the 20th century. In addition to changing how vehicles are powered (from ICE to BEV), we have to provide the infrastructure for charging these vehicles and the electrical grid to support such charging, and we have to convey to consumers that their driving behavior will have to change,” he said. The CARB 2035 goal is ambitious, and California is much further along than any other state with a similar goal or considering adopting one, but “it’s still a significant leap,” Maas said.

Dealers also read the headlines and have concerns about OEMs being able to produce EVs at the pace required by mandates, with raw materials like lithium and cobalt in high demand and uncertain supply. As big a supply-demand issue is whether consumer interest will be sufficient to meet the mandate set by the state government in California for a full transition in 12 years. It is a national and state transition that ultimately becomes a local decision.

Even within California, a dealer in a rural area of the state where EV charging infrastructure is a challenge and where public investment in charging will be less likely is going to be more wary than a dealer in a major metro area in the state. A dealer in Santa Monica may decide more quickly, “I need to be all-in on EVs,” Maas said. “Where you stand depends on where your business sits,” he said. “Significant EV adoption in large cities in California seems pretty clear now, but the question is will we have significant EV adoption throughout the entire state, will Eureka have it at the same pace as LA? Maybe, maybe not?” Maas added.

Who pays for EV charging

The charging element of EVs, more than any other factor, influences how an individual’s day unfolds in a state like California where two million new cars are sold annually. Factors include car owners who live in multi-family housing; and the time it can take to charge — as much as 30 minutes to several hours vs. less than five minutes today to fill a gas tank at the many fueling stations with prices prominently posted and adjusted frequently.

“These challenges aren’t insurmountable, but we do have to explain them to consumers, honestly, so that future car buyers are prepared for what lies ahead,” Maas said.

To become “EV certified,” Ford dealerships can buy into a $500,000 tier or a $1.2 million tier, with the vast majority of that investment tied to the expense of installing EV charging infrastructure. At the lower end, this certification provides dealers with repair and maintenance capabilities and a public DC fast charger, but no EVs to show in the showroom, and no access to a Ford.com presence. It also caps their total EV sales at 25% of inventory. The “elite” tier provides two public DC fast chargers, demo units, rapid replenishment, and a presence on Ford.com. 

Ford CEO Jim Farley told Automotive News last December when it announced that two-thirds of dealers had signed on for the EV program (most for the higher-priced tier), “The future of the franchise system hangs in the balance here,” Farley said. “The No. 1 EV player in the U.S. bet against the dealers. We wanted to make the opposite choice.”

But specific concerns from dealers, expressed to Ford, offer a window into the desire on the part of the dealers to also ask for deepening commitment from Ford as part of their own commitment to the e-certification program. One issue has been dealer reluctance to offer public charging at their locations and asking Ford to up its own investment in public charging, even though dealers are aware the OEMs are spending billions on factories for new EVs and batteries.

Dealers are prepared to offer charging for new vehicles to be sold on their lot and vehicles being serviced. But OEMs asking dealerships to serve as public charging stations has led to pushback. “Tesla pays for its supercharging network, yes with lots of taxpayer subsidies, but they pay,” Maas said. “Dealers are in the business of selling and servicing cars, not selling electrons,” he said. While future business cases may prove that dealers can make money from charging, Maas noted that the selling of electrons is heavily regulated by public utility commissions across the country. “Maybe dealers just want to sell and service cars,” he said. “I haven’t been to a dealership that sells gasoline.” 

Notably, Ford announced a deal with Tesla last week to use its charging network, which surprised some EV experts given the competitive nature of the market, but also placed more pressure on GM to increase charging options.

Charging is a big issue, but not the only issue for dealers.

“While 24/7 public charging has perhaps garnered the most attention, there are numerous program features that we have asked Ford to modify or eliminate,” Maas said. 

Dozens of state dealer trade associations have challenged Ford on multiple aspects of its EV certification program, including its basic legality relative to state law about franchise models.

Auto makers reliant on the franchise model have a financial incentive to control more of the margin that will be available in the EV market, and have learned from watching the margin profile and quality control enjoyed by Tesla’s direct-to-consumer model.

“We have to change our cost profile,” Ford CEO Jim Farley told CNBC in February. 

Ford’s approach to selling EVs in some ways is trying to mimic Tesla’s which gives the company more control over standards from store to store than can be achieved through Ford’s traditional franchise model.

There is always tension between franchisors and franchisees, and all states have franchise laws to try and balance the relationship, and where individual dealers and dealer associations are pushing back is where they feel OEMs are using the EV transition as a way to make asks they never would have made previously. That is not limited to charging, but OEM programs dictating how consumers can reserve EVs, and prescribing how EVs have to be sold, dealer trade-in programs, and service contracts.

“Dealers generally chafe at manufacturer requirements that intrude on their ability to sell to their customers,” Maas said. “OEMs make cars and the dealer buys them at wholesale and the dealer sells. Why should that change because it’s powered by electricity? There’s nothing magic about the fact that it is powered by electricity,” he added.

Auto dealership sales market remains hot

Kerrigan said most of the dealers with whom she speaks do expect GM to eventually have a similar program to Ford’s. Meanwhile, GM is reducing its dealer headcount by buying out existing dealers. In the case of Buick, GM is offering a franchise buyback for those dealers who do not want to make the EV investment. Cadillac has also “quietly reduced” its dealer count through buyouts, Kerrigan said. As opposed to Ford’s “pay-to-play” strategy, she described GM’s current approach as more carrot than stick and, in reducing franchise count, ensuring the GM network is well-positioned to sell and service EVs. 

Dealers, though, may see two sides to the ways both big OEMs are playing the EV transition. Ford, by giving dealers the option to opt in later, will be seen by some dealers who are more reluctant today as being more flexible, if requiring more of an upfront investment today. Some dealers may see the GM approach as the more rigid one, based on their situation. “If you sold your store, there is no changing your mind,” Maas said. The OEMs are in a difficult position attempting to meet all dealer needs and concerns about EVs. “It’s hard to have a national program that is one size fits all for the new vehicle market.”

In the short-term, the EV concerns are not proving to be a big factor in overall willingness among entrepreneurs to invest in car dealerships. Amid a big jump in new and used car prices — the average new car retail price increased from $33,000 to over $46,000 between 2015 and 2023 — transactions in the auto dealer market were the second-highest ever in 2022, according to Kerrigan, with a record 845 franchises sold during the first three quarters of the year. While publicly traded auto retailers retreated from the market as their stock market valuations were cut, private buyers increased their presence as earnings soared for the third-consecutive year. Average dealership earnings rose 9% in 2022, which was 210% above the pre-pandemic five-year average.

“Even in a rising interest rate environment, dealers voted with their pocketbooks and grew their businesses through acquisition in 2022 and continue to do so in 2023,” Kerrigan noted in its April report on sales activity.

Car dealership owners have proven to be an adaptive group of small business owners throughout history.

“Dealers are very resilient business people,” Kerrigan said. ”The demise of the auto retail business model has been erroneously predicted countless times.”

She said most are not overly concerned about the shift to EVs. While some worry about a decline in fixed operations revenue from sales and service as ICE cars disappear, others see the potential for higher revenue in the service and parts department as dealers retaining a higher percentage of the customer service spend with EVs. In 2022, service contributed 12% of dealership revenue, according to the National Auto Dealers Association, versus nearly 50% for new car sales and 38% for used vehicles.

Dealers are gaining a larger share of EV sales, totaling almost 260,000 units in 2022, according to NADA, and dealers capturing 35% of the new BEV market by the end of the year. “We expect this to continue as more BEV models are released by the legacy OEMs in the coming years,” NADA said in its annual report.

“The smartest dealers are trying to figure out where this is going and make decisions both for their family and investment in the business,” Maas said. “Ultimately, it will be up to consumers to tell the dealers and OEMs and the larger market what’s going to happen, because if consumers buy these vehicles in huge numbers it’s a signal to the market we need to respond. But if they don’t buy at the pace CARB has set, then some adjustment have to be made.”