Jane Reed, a special education advocate in Indianapolis, calls herself an “old hippie” who cares about the environment and likes the idea of electric cars.
But she’s not ready to buy a Tesla or any other electric car at this point.
And in that respect, she’s not alone. Women are notably less likely than men to buy EVs.
“No offense to men – because I love you guys dearly – but when it comes to buying a car, women are a little more practical when looking at those needs than men are,” said Reed, who drives a Kia Soul throughout the state of Indiana for her job. “I think we tend to look at Tesla more as toys.”
That’s a problem for electric vehicle makers as they invest heavily in battery-powered cars, seeking to popularize them as alternatives to internal combustion engine vehicles. But it’s particularly troubling for Tesla, which is facing significant pressure to jolt sales amid concerns among investors that interest in the company’s electric vehicles is peaking.
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To be sure, the vast majority of Americans aren’t in the market for electric cars, which represented only 1.4% of total vehicle sales in 2018, according to Morgan Stanley. Tesla accounted for about 53% of the total electric car sales in 2018, according to industry data source InsideEVs.
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And Tesla reported good news on Tuesday: Its second-quarter sales outperformed expectations in what Wedbush Securities analyst Daniel Ives called a “major step in the right direction.”
But questions linger about demand in the long term, Ives noted, in part because it appears that many people purchased Tesla vehicles in the quarter to get ahead of the July 1 halving of Tesla’s federal tax credit for electric car purchases. What’s more, competition is coming from the likes of Cadillac, Ford, Toyota, Volkswagen and others, in addition to cars already on the market from Jaguar, Chevrolet, Honda and Nissan.
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Concerns about practicality, price
Worries about the practicality of electric cars – notably the fact that they can run out of a charge and carry a higher sticker price – and a distaste for the macho image projected by Tesla CEO Elon Musk are among the reasons why the company is struggling to sell vehicles to women, analysts said.
“I think Tesla, in general, has a problem appealing to women,” said Jessica Caldwell, an analyst with car-buying research site Edmunds. “Having vehicles that attract more women buyers is something they’re going to have to do as they roll out into the mainstream market.”
While Musk said in June that demand is “absolutely not” waning, Tesla can’t afford to ignore half of the population as it tries to achieve profitability. More than 60% of women “are the sole decision-maker when it comes to purchasing their next car,” according to a recent Cars.com survey.
To be sure, women cannot be grouped together as a monolithic set of consumers. Each individual has her own motivations and justifications for making purchases.
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But statistically speaking, Tesla is trailing its competitors when it comes to getting women to purchase its cars.
In the first quarter of 2019, 69% of Tesla vehicles were registered by men, while 31% were registered by women, according to Edmunds.
Among luxury auto brands, Tesla’s breakdown compares with 51% men-49% women for Lexus, 54%-46% for Acura, 56%-44% for Lincoln, 57%-43% for Mercedes-Benz, 58%-42% for Cadillac and 60%-40% for BMW, according to Edmunds.
Only two luxury brands performed worse than Tesla among women – Porsche at 72%-28% and Genesis at 74%-26% – and those are niche lineups.
An electric car problem
What’s particularly troubling for Tesla is that the company’s failure to appeal to women might not have much to do with the brand.
“I don’t know that it’s a Tesla problem as much as an electric vehicle problem,” said Rebecca Lindland, an auto analyst and founder of RebeccaDrives.com.
Indeed, the most popular non-Tesla electric cars also have a similar problem in appealing to women: The Chevrolet Bolt’s registrations split is 69% men-31% women, while the Nissan Leaf’s is 66% men-34% women.
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Yet the issue is most pressing for Tesla since the company sells nothing but electric cars. Unlike Chevrolet, there’s no Silverado pickup truck to generate profits.
Key to Tesla’s challenges among all consumers: There’s a perception that electric vehicles are a hassle because you need to regularly charge them to avoid getting stranded.
But for women, it’s even more problematic because they “tend to be more practical than emotional when it comes to vehicle purchases,” Lindland said.
Caldwell said automotive research indicates that women are more likely than men to focus on functionality and cost of ownership when shopping for a car – rather than macho-sounding features like Tesla’s so-called “ludicrous mode,” which enables aggressive driving.
Some women, however, have embraced Tesla.
San Diego-area resident Elaine Borseth has been driving a Tesla Model S ultra-luxury sedan for the last four years. She’s become an evangelist for the brand, saying they’re “very sleek and sexy” and she was “blown away by the performance.”
“To me, when I bought it I didn’t care that it was electric – I just thought it was amazing,” she said.
She has completed multiple cross-country road trips in her Tesla and takes potential electric car customers on test drives.
Despite her love of the brand, she’s noticed “there’s a lot of misinformation out there” about electric cars. For example, it’s easy to charge at home by installing a high-powered outlet or paying a few hundred dollars for a charging unit, she said.
She also praised Tesla vehicles’ cargo space and safety, which she said could appeal to women with children.
Elon Musk’s persona
But concerns about electric cars might not be the only problem for Tesla when it comes to appealing to women.
Musk’s tendency to project machismo and bravado has generated a frenzied following among technologically oriented men in Silicon Valley. He has suggested that a dive rescuer was a pedophile, sold a makeshift blowtorch and apparently smoked marijuana on camera during a podcast.
That type of persona can be objectionable for many women, said Caldwell and Lindland.
And given how tightly Tesla has tied its brand to Musk’s personality, love of Musk often equates to love of Tesla.
“There is an idolization that a lot of people feel,” Caldwell said. “That idolization is probably more apt for men than women.”
Reed, the Indianapolis resident, said men are more likely to be attracted to Musk’s swagger than women.
“I think Elon Musk is a brilliant man, no doubt there,” she said. But “there’s an aloofness – there’s something there that I don’t trust.”
Tesla declined to comment for this story.
Musk has said in recent public appearances that anyone who buys a traditional vehicle rather than an electric car with self-driving capability is making a “basically financially insane” decision.
He has also argued that Tesla’s strong performance in federal vehicle safety ratings should be a compelling selling point.
Time to advertise?
Borseth, the Tesla enthusiast from San Diego, said Tesla needs to consider advertising for the first time to broadcast its qualities more widely.
“For women with families especially, the Tesla is an awesome car,” she said. “I think people just don’t realize that.”
Musk has maintained that Tesla doesn’t need to advertise right now because it’s selling all the cars it can manufacture, even without ads.
But there may come a day when the company runs out of early adopters and needs to appeal to the masses, including women who might otherwise not have considered a Tesla.
“I think education is the key, and I wish that Tesla would either start doing some advertising or start doing some events that are geared toward women so we can get the word out,” Borseth said.
One X factor that could help Tesla: the company’s nontraditional approach to selling vehicles.
Rather than using traditional dealerships, which critics say are prone to machismo, Tesla sells vehicles online and through retail stores with no haggling involved.
“This is a way to market to women to talk to them about how much easier it is to buy a vehicle from Tesla than anyone else,” Lindland said. “Showing how the path to purchase a Tesla is better … than a traditional dealer can be very compelling.”
Follow USA TODAY reporter Nathan Bomey on Twitter @NathanBomey.