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In 1902, H. Carter Myers started out in the hardware, machinery and mill supply business. But when residents of Petersburg, Virginia, began trading horses for internal combustion engines, he directed employees to market cars his in-store team assembled from kits.
More than a century later, his great-granddaughter is orchestrating yet another transition at the family-operated auto dealership that sprang from that single store. Liza Myers Borches, president and CEO of Carter Myers Automotive, is at the forefront in acclimating drivers to electrifying their rides.
In her view, Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam’s signing of the General Assembly’s Clean Cars Virginia bill into law last month allows more dealers to climb aboard the electric vehicle bandwagon.
Environmental and health advocates had pushed Clean Cars to the top of their legislative agenda this year, an effort to rein in the state’s prolific emissions of heat-trapping gases from the transportation sector. To date, Virginia is first in the South and the latest of 14 states and the District of Columbia to follow California’s lead by adopting clean car standards.
The milestone measure signals to auto manufacturers that Virginia dealers are receptive to a steady supply of greener vehicles. In a nutshell, it sets two standards. One requires manufacturers to roll out vehicles that steadily decrease emissions of greenhouse gases, soot and smog-forming pollutants. The other requires a wider array of electric cars, SUVs and pickups, known as zero-emissions vehicles.
Clean Cars will likely line up with the rollout of electric vehicles for model year 2025, so state dealers have a few years to pivot.
More than half of Virginians are amenable to purchasing an electric vehicle, according to a survey conducted by Generation 180 late last year. A comprehensive report issued by the Charlottesville-based environmental nonprofit revealed that barriers such as a shortage of car lot inventory and a lack of point-of-sale rebates had stalled the adoption rate at below 2% statewide. Nationwide, Virginia ranks 13th in electric vehicle sales.
Carter Myers Automotive, now headquartered in Charlottesville, is the fifth largest dealer group in Virginia with 17 franchises in 15 locations.
Borches joined her family business in 2003 and had worked in the industry since graduating from the University of Virginia McIntire School of Commerce in 1997 with a degree in finance and marketing.
She and her husband, Peter Borches, are early and enthusiastic adopters of transport fueled by electrons. Not only do they have two electric bikes at home, but she drives a Volvo plug-in hybrid and he drives an all-electric Nissan Leaf.
Borches is already eyeing a Volkswagen ID.4 as the next family car because they anticipate their son will inherit the Leaf when he turns 16.
“Its range is very solid at 250 miles, its performance is great, and the interior is simple, super-clean and usable,” she said about the VW. “As a mom, I have to consider how the vehicle is going to work in my life. This one is a sport utility vehicle so it has space for kids and room for their friends.”
The following Energy News Network interview with Borches about electric vehicles in Virginia has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Q: Let’s start off with Clean Cars Virginia. How does it broaden access to electric vehicles?
A: It’s pretty simple and clear. It’s a great first step because it means Virginia becomes a higher priority for receiving electric vehicles from manufacturers. We hope we will have the electric vehicle models that customers are demanding.
What has held some dealers back is a 30-day mindset. They feared they wouldn’t move a car off the lot because interest might not be there.
Clean Cars means more electric vehicles on Virginia’s roads. The delay in putting it into place means we will have time to build out charging infrastructure and make sure point-of-purchase rebates are funded.
Q: What are the top three changes it will require of your company?
A: The bill itself doesn’t require changes. If we want to put more electric vehicles on the road, it’s a matter of asking auto manufacturers if they want to partner with us.
Here in Virginia, we’ll have to invest in equipment such as new lifts and new tools to service electric vehicles. And, new training is required for our sales associates, who can learn online, and our technicians, who have to be certified.
Dealers also have to take the risk of stocking electric vehicle inventories. Once we have them on our floor, we own them. “Are they going to sell?” and “What do we do if they don’t?” are the questions that concern dealers. We need to make sure there’s consumer demand because if we don’t sell them before the next model year is available, it’s a high-dollar investment.
Q: At first, members of the Virginia Automobile Dealers Association resisted this legislation and, at the very least, wanted to delay it. What role, if any, did you play in shifting that opposition?
A: It was such a short legislative session and it was all being done virtually, so we had a lot going on in a short amount of time. We sent out that initial letter in opposition because our immediate reaction to the bill was, “Wait a minute, we haven’t had time to digest this and understand the positives and the negatives.” It’s coming too fast and we couldn’t talk in person about it.
After the letter went out, we had to educate ourselves. That meant checking in with multiple dealers in other states with clean cars legislation to find out how it worked and with representatives from the environmental and other groups. Our attitude was, “Let’s talk this through.” Once we learned more, the negatives disappeared.
Q: Broadly, people know tailpipe emissions are wreaking havoc with the planet’s future, but driving is ingrained in our culture. Did you have an “aha” moment about climate change?
A: It started with my husband, Peter, who oversees new builds and remodeling projects for the company. One project with challenges was a parking deck in Charlottesville that needed some sort of roof or cover. He connected with Sun Tribe in 2016 and started exploring solar options. It just made so much sense and we couldn’t find a downside.
Looking at the science of climate change, and taking the political side off the table, it led to a pretty clear moment where we both asked how we could be part of the solution. As a couple in the transportation business with two young kids, we had a choice to make right now. We could either stick our heads in the sand and continue to sell thousands of internal combustion cars or start switching to hybrid and electric models. As part of an industry that is the number one contributor of greenhouse gases, we realized we could take advantage of that and play a role in significantly alleviating the problem.
Q: That initial solar superstructure of 480 panels led to your company’s Colonial Nissan dealership becoming the first sun-powered one in Virginia. Is solar a trend?
A: Our fourth installation is being hooked up now in Staunton at our Chrysler store. That will give us a total of 523 kilowatts of direct current solar.
Q: You are active with multiple nonprofit organizations, including the Community Climate Collaborative (C3) in Charlottesville. What perspective on EVs did the latter offer to you that you didn’t have before?
A: We were part of the collaborative’s Better Business Challenge. Peter joined the board, which helped us focus on energy use and ask how we could work with C3 to bring action to Charlottesville. Together, we developed Driving Climate Solutions in 2019, about eight months before COVID-19. We made a couple of Nissan Leafs available so politicians and business and nonprofit leaders could drive one for a day. That generated awareness buzz about how easy it is to switch to an electric vehicle.
Also, during the pandemic we’ve made five Leafs available in Charlottesville. People can drive a Leaf for a day while their car is in the shop.
Q: Electric vehicles can be intimidating for buyers who don’t sell cars for a living. How can auto dealers make that less so?
A: Two points. First, it’s so important to get people to experience an electric vehicle by driving one. Dealers should take the time to do educational events that are not threatening in common areas where participants have the opportunity to get to know the vehicles. We’ve worked with community and manufacturing partners to do events at a local country club and businesses. For example, we did a lunch and learn at Apex Clean Energy in Charlottesville where a test drive was part of the presentation.
The other point is that all of this will be less intimidating in the near future because of how manufacturers are integrating the technology. It’s part of the journey as product portfolios advance.
Q: Right now, EVs have higher price tags. How do you counter the argument that they are a rich person’s indulgence?
A: Well, the alternative is to not put electric vehicles on the road. Even if they’re more expensive than internal combustion models and even if they’re driven by buyers with higher incomes, having them on the road allows us to get used to this vehicle option in three to five years.
The second thing is, we have to start somewhere. As we achieve enough volume, we have economies of scale, which brings down the price point.
Q: Relatedly, Virginia legislators passed House Bill 1979. It reduces the upfront cost of an electric vehicle with a $2,500 point-of-sale rebate for Virginians purchasing new, used or leased vehicles up to $55,000. Low- to moderate-income buyers receive an additional $2,000. The trouble is, it wasn’t funded this session. Why does this bill matter to auto dealers?
A: The rebate is important because it helps drive demand, so volumes increase and costs come down for manufacturers. Manufacturers will want us to stock their vehicles in order to meet their sales numbers, but we do not have to carry them unless we feel there will be consumer demand.
I love that the bill includes more money for low- to moderate-income buyers. That shows Virginia really tried to do everything they could to provide an incentive to people who are maybe not considering an electric vehicle.
I can’t tell you that the legislation is perfect, but it’s a very intentional effort to create a rebate that is focused on helping people who otherwise couldn’t afford an electric vehicle. I don’t know how we can differentiate somebody who was going to buy an electric vehicle anyway from the person who opted for an electric vehicle because of the rebate.
In the meantime, we still have a lot of work to do. We have time to create amendments to give legislators more confidence to fund the bill.
Q: Not everyone has the money or interest to invest in at-home charging infrastructure. How do you and your employees address that?
A: The cost of home charging stations has dropped significantly and they are very available. We’re investigating the idea of a partnership with a company that sells charging stations to make the purchase all one package and stay super easy for consumers buying electric vehicles. One-stop shopping puts all the pieces of the puzzle together.
What we haven’t addressed as a country is: How do we help renters or those living in condos, apartments and multifamily housing have access to at-home charging? We haven’t cracked that yet and it’s still a big issue on the table.
Q: You pointed out that your great-grandfather H. Carter Myers and his business partner sold a few electric trucks in Petersburg, Virginia. Do you think he would be astounded that EVs are having a resurgence now?
A: It’s a good question. It makes me wonder how different our country, our climate, our world would be if electric vehicles had taken hold in the early 1900s instead of internal combustion.
Q: Readers should know you’re named after Elizabeth P. Myers, your great-grandfather’s sister. She evidently kept the fledgling family business, then known as Petersburg Motor Company, afloat during the Great Depression. Can you tell us a bit about your great-great-aunt?
A: I only wish I knew more about her and could have met her. In the 1920s, while in her 20s, she moved to New York City for a job with Northwestern Insurance. Working with executives there, she gained a great reputation as a strong businesswoman. She saved enough money to keep our family afloat through the stock market crash (1929) and during the Depression.
In addition to giving her brother money, she gave him advice. We have letters she wrote spelling out what she thought he needed to do to keep the company going during the Depression and well beyond. She gained a broad perspective living in New York. For instance, she encouraged him to add racial diversity to his staff by hiring Black sales associates. He listened and became the first Petersburg dealership to do so.