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Opinion: Electric vehicles: Think globally, sell locally

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Gov. Greg Gianforte recently vetoed legislation that would have raised user fees on electric vehicles to some of the highest in the country. As he noted, the auto industry is moving toward EVs, and so the state needs to prepare for that future.

He's right. Almost 1,000 Montanans already own EVs. And Montana auto dealers are not only selling more of them all the time, they are also investing millions of dollars upgrading their facilities to service the coming generation of reliable, powerful, affordable green vehicles.

And dozens of new EVs are finally coming to market — not just from niche or luxury companies but from virtually all manufacturers. Perhaps most important for the uptake of EVs, next year Ford is unveiling an electric version of its best-selling F-150 truck, at prices starting at around $40,000. And GM, Volvo, Jaguar, Mini and others are even going "EV only" in coming years — dropping internal combustion engines altogether.

These new vehicles could do tremendous good for our environment, obviously, but also for our economy, for working families and local communities. But all that good ultimately depends on customers' satisfaction with their EVs. And history suggests that that satisfaction is going to depend on local auto dealerships to continuing to serve their communities as they have for decades.

Some voices in the industry believe the green car revolution will turn the page on local, independent auto dealers. They think automakers should bypass local franchises to create vertically integrated, global distribution systems. Doing so might help a few corporations in the short term — too often Wall Street's metric of success — but it won't help car customers at all. Excluding dealerships might well squander all the other benefits EVs are promising.

The economics are simple. Auto dealers' business model requires them to provide services to their customers beyond just sales, and through the entire life-cycle of the vehicle — from financing to titling to handling service, recall completions, trade-ins, and more.

That attention to customers' needs is why dealers were patient with early EVs. Dealers want what their customers want, and in Montana — and just about everywhere else — car shoppers weren't interested in the expensive, short-range, unproven EVs that hit the market almost a decade ago. Many of these were compliance cars outfitted for government mandates, not customers.

But now, EVs' range and power are increasing, and so have sales — up 45% in the first quarter of 2021 over last year. In May, 70,000 buyers put down deposits to reserve new F-150 Lightnings — in the first week they were available. Now that automakers are making EVs that people are interested in, independent local dealerships are "all in."

Thousands of dealerships across the country have modernized their stores and service bays. A majority of GMC and Cadillac dealerships have already begun the process. Seventy percent of Ford dealerships are making similar upgrades. Chevy dealerships are so far along that new EV models are arriving ahead of schedule.

Now that the EV market is finally viable, it's local dealerships' service and competition that will further bring down prices and give customers the help they need navigating it.

The 8,000 jobs — good-paying jobs, with growth potential, even for people who didn't go to college — and $3 billion in sales created by Montana dealerships are the reason EVs can finally work here. Dealers will have the tools and training to service the new tech. They will have the local expertise and help grow the investment in local charging stations. They will have the knowledge about what these new cars and trucks can and can't do. Without dealerships' local marketing and services, these cars aren't going to sell.

For the green revolution in automobiles to work — for our environment and our economy — it's not going to be enough to "think globally." We have to sell locally, too.

Shannon Flanagan has over 30 years of experience in the automotive industry, and is current owner of Flanagan Motors Mazda, located in Missoula.

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