Arkansas Dealers Prepare for Electric Vehicle Reality


Wes Thomas: “We anticipated in Arkansas that it would be a long ramp coming up to it.”
Wes Thomas: “We anticipated in Arkansas that it would be a long ramp coming up to it.”

The future is not quite now for electric vehicles in Arkansas, but it isn’t far off.

Russ Daniel, the managing partner of McLarty Daniel dealerships in the state, has been in the car business for nearly three decades and knows that electric vehicles are the future. But while electric vehicles grow in popularity nationwide, EVs in Arkansas have failed to gain much sway.

Nevertheless, Daniel said “forward-thinking” automobile dealers best start preparing for the transition from internal combustion engines to electric. “It’s here,” Daniel said. “It is time to really get engaged.”

The Arkansas Department of Finance & Administration reported in April that there were approximately 1,800 electric vehicles and more than 23,000 hybrid vehicles registered in the state. There were more than 4 million total vehicle registrations, so EVs still represent a minute percentage.

Nationwide, there were nearly 296,000 EVs sold in 2020, which was a decrease from 331,000 in 2019, according to Platts Analytics. Much of the decrease is thought to be because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Arkansas, clearly, is behind even that modest sales trend. Wes Thomas, the general manager at North Little Rock’s McLarty Volkswagen — which has a different ownership group than McLarty Daniel — said his dealership has sold two Volkswagen ID4s since the manufacturer released the model one month ago.

The ID4, a compact SUV, is available for approximately $40,000 before tax credits for buying electric kick in, Thomas said. Both of the ID4s were pre-sold to customers who bought the cars remotely and then picked them up at the dealership.

“We anticipated in Arkansas that it would be a long ramp coming up to it as this is a market that doesn’t have a lot of electric in it,” Thomas said. “The demand for electric cars is growing on a daily basis, not in huge increments but [steadily] as more manufacturers are getting into [the market] and more models become available. The key to electric sustainability in the market is the range of the battery power and the affordability of the vehicle.”

Russ Daniel, managing partner of McLarty Daniel
Russ Daniel, managing partner of McLarty Daniel

Charging Forward

The chief obstacle slowing down electric vehicles in Arkansas is the lack of a robust infrastructure.

Electric vehicles operate on battery power and when the battery winds down, it has to be recharged. Currently, charging stations aren’t widely available in Arkansas, although dealers who sell EVs and companies such as Walmart Inc. of Bentonville have installed stations at certain store locations.

According to the PlugShare app, there are more than 400 charging stations in Arkansas, mostly in the larger cities. The central Arkansas triumvirate of Little Rock, North Little Rock and Conway has 184, northwest Arkansas’ four-city corridor has 100 and Hot Springs has 51.

Rural areas of Arkansas have few if any charging stations. Arkansas “doesn’t have a charging infrastructure as some other markets that have been focused on for a longer period of time,” Thomas said.

Daniel said the infrastructure will grow in time, and that push will be helped by President Joe Biden, whose administration is keen on developing and promoting electric vehicles. Two recent photo ops have shown Biden driving electric vehicles.

“With the current government that is in place, all of the benefits from taxation and infrastructure are going to lead that down the path a little bit sooner than what we had really anticipated,” Daniel said. “Electric vehicles are now on the forefront of what is going on, and we need to embrace that and be ready for that.”

Collin Riggin is already fully embracing the EV movement. Riggin is the founder and a partner in Evolve Auto in North Little Rock, which is the only exclusive EV dealership in the state.

“As always, anything progressive in Arkansas tends to grow a little bit slower than the rest of the country,” Riggin said. “One thing I noticed a couple years ago was the overall lack of availability was a lot of the reason for the holdback here. It is growing faster. We have a lot of demand right now. In general, around the country, there is a lot of demand for these.”

Collin Riggin is founder of Evolve Auto in North Little Rock, an EV dealership that has  sold a stake to Seal Solar.
Collin Riggin is founder of Evolve Auto in North Little Rock, an EV dealership that has sold a stake to Seal Solar. (Karen E. Segrave)

A Car’s a Car

Riggin said he started Evolve in part to educate the public about the performance and quality of electric vehicles. Evolve mostly sells Tesla models but if anyone wants a specific EV model, he’ll find it. He projects that his dealership will be selling 30 cars a month within a year.

Riggin is confident that people unfamiliar with EVs will become believers if they drive one. He keeps one on the lot for test drives, and Daniel said McLarty Daniel Volkswagen has a test-drive model for nonbelievers or the curious.

“It is the difference between night and day,” Riggin said of the difference test driving makes. “It is an education process. We are happy to teach anybody who is interested. If they buy or not, if they leave with a better understanding of what is coming, then we are happy.”

Daniel said dealers will have to adjust to the transition as it happens, preferably before. Sales and maintenance teams will have to get up to speed on the ins and outs of electric vehicles.

“The forward-thinking dealers who get out ahead of this are going to dictate the pace of that [growth],” Daniel said. “You can know as much as you want about them, but if you don’t have one of them sitting here it’s not going to do you any good. As this grows, it is going to be important we keep pace with availability and understanding. It is a very sophisticated vehicle.”

Most researchers and industry followers predict sales will steadily increase nationwide. The analytic company IHS Markit predicts EVs sales will be 10% of the U.S. vehicle market by 2025; that will be bolstered by 100 new models coming out in the next four years.

Additionally, several automobile manufacturers have said they plan to be all-electric within 20 years, notably Volvo by 2030 and General Motors by 2035.

“It’s not a talking point any more,” Daniel said. “It’s reality. It’s no longer a study.”