How Smart Columbus built the largest EV test drive program in the U.S.
We know that people are more likely to buy an electric vehicle (EV) after a test drive, but dealership experiences aren’t enough. The more experience someone has driving an EV the more favorable they are towards it.
A test drive allows drivers to feel the powerful torque, hear the whisper quiet drive and experience the fun of driving electric.
In 2016, Smart Columbus was created to achieve many bold goals, including growing EV adoption 500% in the Columbus region by March 2020. As the winner of the U.S. Department of Transportation Smart Cities Challenge, the City of Columbus was awarded $40 million to launch a series of mobility innovation pilots to improve quality of life. An additional $10 million was awarded from the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation to advance electrification and decarbonization in the region. With this award, Smart Columbus was born, a public private partnership led by the City of Columbus and the Columbus Partnership – a CEO member-based non-profit improving quality of life in the region.
We learned early that to create a market for EVs in a state without specific policies designed to accelerate EV adoption, we would need to provide opportunities for people to test drive EVs of all varieties in a low-pressure, convenient, fun and educational environment.
In October 2017, we launched our flagship EV education program – the Smart Columbus Ride & Drive Roadshow. The initiative was designed to educate central Ohio residents about EVs by providing EV test drives of all makes and models in a low-pressure, educational environment. We wanted to increase affinity towards EVs and increase conversions to electric through phenomenal test drive experiences.
The program concluded in October 2019, with 120 events, nearly 12,000 test drives and over 1,500 participants opting to contacted by a dealer about the vehicle they drove. However, the most compelling statistics are the changes in mindset and purchasing intentions after driving. Based on survey responses, 84% of drivers said an EV was for them after their test drive, up from 52% before. Our program changed minds and will continue to increase EV adoption for years to come, since 60% of participants are planning to purchase a vehicle in the next three years.
In order for us to make such a big impact, we had to do things a little differently. After studying the Columbus market and leveraging our strong business partnerships, we figured out several unique ways to make our Ride & Drive Roadshow distinct, and one of the largest EV test drive programs in the county.
Partnering with local dealers to offer diversity in EVs available to drive
Prior to this test drive program, the vast majority of central Ohioans had not driven an EV and were unlikely to seek one out at a dealership. By having numerous models available during our Ride & Drive Roadshow, participants had the chance to conveniently try multiple models. Fully electric and hybrid electric vehicles of a variety of makes, body types and price points were provided to ensure there was something for everyone.
Events featured six to 14 vehicles of different makes and models, all provided on loan from vehicle manufacturers and Smart Columbus dealer partners. Vehicle partnerships were predicated on providing high value back to the vehicle manufacturer or dealership, including visibility of the brand, test drives, lead generation and marketing consulting at no cost.
Focusing on private events at corporate campuses
The Ride & Drive program toured the region across an array of host sites including corporate campuses, universities, hospitals, high-security facilities, government buildings and public events. The majority of events were hosted with medium and large employers in the region with a focus on high density sites with a higher concentration of early adopters compared to the general public. Since many people spend just as much time with their coworkers as they do their families, we found that they were comfortable riding with others and asking questions when the test drives were held in a workplace setting.
Public test drive events in partnership with local government and community events also played a key role in reaching residents who weren’t employed by targeted workplaces.
Providing EV and smart mobility education
Once participants checked in for their drive, they learned about Smart Columbus and EVs so they were primed for their in-car experience. We taught them the basics about charging and the difference between EVs and other types of vehicles. In addition to EV education, participants learned about smart mobility options including transit, micro-transit, carpooling and cycling. In order to deliver 120 high-quality events, Smart Columbus contracted Civitas Marketing, an experiential marketing company located in Columbus. The Civitas team included professional and high-energy Product Specialists to facilitate the in-car experience. Product Specialists guided participants through the educational experience and also directed them on a pre-determined route while discussing the features of the particular car the participant was driving and answering their questions.
Allowing for multiple test drives and multiple drivers
In 2018, we launched a multi-driver approach, allowing drivers to invite their coworkers to ride along with them when they schedule their drives. We learned that if there were more than one driver in a vehicle, participants can be both a rider and a driver and have a more robust in-car experience. Product Specialists were able to direct multiple driver trips so drivers can safely switch seats with other riders during the route.
With our multi-driver approach, our drive capacity increased from about 117 drives per event to 351 per event. We also began to see workplace events where hundreds of drives were happening in a day. In 2018, ten of our events completed more than 180 drives in one day—the most drives in one day was 276.
We also encouraged drivers to pick more than one car to test drive at an event. When drivers received confirmation emails, they were prompted to schedule additional drives. Also, at the Ride & Drive event, people often become interested in more cars after their first test drive.
Quantifying our impact and continuing to educate
By conducting pre- and post-drive surveys measuring demographics, desirable vehicle characteristics, EV attitudes and vehicle purchase plans, we were able to lead our most interested test drive participants to more information on EV culture in the region. Participants receive monthly email updates on new EV models, local deals and EV owner meetup groups and events to help push them from considering an EV, to going electric. These leads are translating into sales. Based on survey responses of Ride & Drive participants, we estimate the program has resulted in over 950 EV purchases over the last two years.
What we’ve been able to do is just the beginning in educating our region about EVs. As the next five years promise to see an uptick in EV interest in the U.S., it is essential that cities of all sizes take a part in understanding the benefits of amplifying EV culture.
Alex Slaymaker is Smart Columbus’s smart mobility adoption manager.