It’s the moment that electric-vehicle makers have been awaiting for decades: a massive increase in demand for EVs because of soaring gas prices that can also provide a much-needed boost in the efforts to curb the worst of global warming.
But there’s a problem: Despite all these hungry buyers, the cars are almost impossible to find.
The introduction of new models, a proliferation of government rebates, and spiking gas prices have all made going electric seem more appealing — and more affordable — than ever before. But a global shortage of computer microchips has ravaged the automobile supply chain, leaving dealers with few cars to put in the hands of buyers while sending interested drivers scrambling.
“I have 15 deposits on cars that don’t exist yet,” said Guy Bedau, a sales manager specializing in electric vehicles at Milford Nissan.
According to auto-buying website CarGurus, searches for electric vehicles in Massachusetts and across the country have soared, especially after gas prices hit $5 a gallon, said Kevin Roberts, director of industry analytics for CarGurus.
“I would say it’s just kind of an unfortunate time for the industry,” he said. “The supply is really going to be the limiting factor here.”
Long gone are the days of pulling into a dealership, test-driving a vehicle, and then making a deal. Across the state, people describe a hunt for electric vehicles that’s akin to buying a house: buyers are maxing out wait lists for models not yet on the market, or ordering vehicles that won’t even be built for five or six months. Some are settling for a color they’d otherwise spurn, or a model that’s not quite what they wanted.
When Jane Winn’s 2003 Toyota Camry finally died earlier this year, she hoped to move on to a Hyundai Kona, the least expensive EV on the market that she felt could handle the mountain roads of the Berkshires, where she works.
“I couldn’t find a new Hyundai Kona anywhere,” Winn said. Then a dealership an hour away — one of five whose wait lists she was on — reached out with news that it had just gotten one in. “I dropped everything and went to test-drive it — and bought it immediately.”
Others haven’t been so lucky.
Take one of the customers Bedau is working with at his Nissan dealership. When the man approached in April hoping to buy two blue Nissan LEAFs for his business by the fall, Bedau thought, “I’ve got to be able to do that,” he said.
But then Nissan halted all LEAF production for the following month. Now his dealership is only getting a few each month, and Bedau has no control over the colors. The fall is no longer looking so good.
So what will happen to the customer expecting two blue LEAFs? “Basically, I just don’t know,” Bedau said.
Ironically, just as customers seem eager for the model, Nissan is reportedly planning to phase it out by mid-decade, replacing it with another EV, according to a report by Automotive News.
Buying a used vehicle isn’t much easier.
Alex Wheaton, a sales manager at Acton Toyota of Littleton, said his dealership has just a fraction of its normal supply of used plug-in hybrid and hybrid cars to resell “because everyone’s keeping them, now that gas prices are so high. But if a hybrid or a plug-in shows up, it’s pretty much sold within a week.”
Despite the supply challenges in Massachusetts and elsewhere, the increased demand for EVs is enough to have caused a seismic shift in the automobile market. According to Cox Automotive, an industry consulting firm, electric vehicles accounted for 5.6 percent of the total market in the second quarter of this year, up from 5.3 percent last quarter and compared to 2.7 percent a year ago.
Car makers are investing billions in the switch to EVs, retooling factories that make gas cars to electric vehicles and committing to convert most or all of their production to electric in the next decade or so.
Genevieve Cullen, president of the trade group Electric Drive Transportation Association, attributed the increase in sales to the proliferation of new models — 33 EV models are available this quarter, compared to 19 just one year ago — and an influx of more moderately priced electric vehicles. Vehicles are also able to travel farther on a single charge, compared to earlier models.
But manufacturing isn’t meeting the moment. Tesla and Rivian have both announced layoffs and restructuring in the face of an uncertain economy, including surges in the prices of raw materials needed for batteries. And now the lack of supply is putting a damper on just how high EV sales can go.
The shortage of electric vehicles is hitting Massachusetts just as the state is accelerating its effort to get more people out of gas-powered cars.
Transportation is the state’s second largest source of carbon pollution after buildings. To get to the state’s legally mandated target of cutting emissions by 50 percent below 1990s levels by 2030 and net-zero emissions by 2050, Massachusetts is aiming to have 200,000 electric vehicles on the road by 2025, and 900,000 by 2030.
But it’s running far short of that goal. As of March, there were just 51,431 electric passenger vehicles on the road. The governor and Legislature are working on proposals to increase rebates and the availability of EV charging infrastructure.
But on the ground, Bedau and several other car dealers say the most acute problem is supply. It all boils down to the lack of semiconductor chips, they say, which are the lifeblood of electronics.
When the pandemic began, public health restrictions sharply reduced output from the semiconductor industry, forcing carmakers to temporarily shut factories and pause production. Then, in a double whammy for the car industry, the work-from-home phenomenon compelled consumers to buy a lot more electronics, from computer monitors to video game consoles, so much so that chip makers shifted their supply to meet that demand.
By the time automakers restarted operations, the chips they had previously relied on were suddenly in startlingly short supply.
“Now add EVs to the mix, which tend to be smarter and need additional semiconductors,” said Cullen, the electric vehicle trade association president.
The good news, experts say, is that the chip shortage should abate sometime in the next six to 18 months. But in the meantime, buyers are left in a jam.
Dharna Noor of the Globe staff contributed to this report.