By contributor
updated 10/24/2007 4:01:18 PM ET 2007-10-24T20:01:18

Eco-savvy entrepreneurs are making it easier for car shoppers — upset by rising oil prices, global warming and world politics — to find, buy and drive away in a green vehicle that consumes less or no gasoline. At least 16 green car dealerships — one-stop shops where customers can compare and test-drive multiple alternative vehicles — have opened in 10 states, from Hawaii to Maine.

Customers will see more niche dealerships in two to five years, even though the obstacles are monumental, said Sebastian Blanco, editor of AutoblogGreen. For mainstream consumers, today’s green vehicles are too inconvenient, too expensive or just too weird. Car loans and insurance are expensive or unobtainable. Perhaps most challenging, consumers need to get informed and comfortable. But those issues will get sorted out, he said.

“That is what makes them so exciting. Even though these things are so complicated, there is such a push,” said Blanco. “People are so active in taking things into their own hands. They know they can make their own fuel. That’s important to these people, especially in those remote areas. … You might not be able to go in there and sell 500 cars a year. But a small dealership that can work with customers one-on-one and be an education center— that is a green car dealership of the future.”

That’s Ron Gompertz’s dream. He picked Bozeman, Mont., a town of about 33,000 people that gets roughly 70 inches of snow each year. Despite no car business experience, Gompertz opened his alternative car company, Eco Auto Inc. a year ago because he believed the town’s outdoor lovers, college students, baby boomers and gadget geeks could learn to like electric cars and compact fuel-efficient cars. Eco Auto’s latest experiment is converting a 2008 Subaru Forester into a highway-speed, zero-emission, winter-ready, all-electric, all-wheel-drive vehicle, which should be ready in early next year, he said.

“In Montana, it is big sky county and it is big truck country. … This is a place where people trust their vehicles to get them through the harshest weather. They forget that people in Sweden have snow and drive small cars, too,” Gompertz said. “People want to put a plug in their homes and free themselves. In Montana, they pay 10 percent of their income on gas. There is anger.”

Consumers are angry because gas prices have doubled in the past five years, said Jim Kliesch, a senior vehicles analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists. Yet fuel economy — how far your car will run on a gallon of gas— has remained on average the same for 20 years even though the technology for more efficiency has existed for years, Kliesch said. Add it all up, and it means that Americans spend $10 billion more every month on gasoline because of preventable poor fuel efficiency. Green car dealerships will multiply because consumers want choices, he said.

“If you have consumers that are reverting to buying electric bicycles, that is a sign that vehicles on major showroom floors are not meeting customer needs,” Kliesch said. “For everyone customer that goes to those (alternative) dealerships and finds something, there are a hundred customers that settle at the regular dealerships despite the fact that they want cleaner, more fuel-efficient vehicles.”

The Green Car Company of Kirkland, a Seattle-area dealership that reinvented itself in 2005, sees an opportunity to grow. The company’s three founders, Susan Fahnestock, Don Fahnestock and Greg Rock, are courting investors and national talent who can open multiple West Coast locations and create a high-profile advertising campaign. When customers enter Green Car Company stores, they will find electric neighborhood vehicles, full-speed electric motorcycles, used hybrids, electric bicycles and refurbished full-size biodiesel vehicles, including popular biodiesel trucks and minivans. Whatever the latest and greatest alternative vehicles are, the Green Car Company will carry them, Rock said.

“There are a lot of specialized green car dealers doing one car group or another,” Rock said. “We think it is important to carry all of the groups and styles.”

Putting a premium on education, the Green Car Company created a Green Car Scorecard to help customers compare vehicles based on global warming emissions, fossil fuel depletion and air pollution. The company also launched a Green Car University Web site featuring related articles, books, videos and maps.

“It’s a rapidly growing market,” said Rock. “The big head start we have is we have been doing this for three years, where a lot of these other businesses are starting today. … It is a big, bright future.”

Exponential growth is possible, said Jim Motavalli, author of “Forward Drive: The Race to Build Clean Cars for the Future” and editor of E/Environmental Magazine. He noted that a recent JD Power survey estimated that hybrid sales would grow by 268 percent from 2005 to 2012, and a Wall Street Journal Online/Harris poll found that a third of new car buyers would consider an alternative fuel vehicle.

What’s holding alternative dealerships back is a lack of full-size, full-speed, multipurpose green vehicles that mainstream consumers will embrace, but they’re being developed, Motavalli said. Full-size, full-speed affordable electric cars, for instance, could appear within five years.

“The consumer is going to have more choices,” Motavalli said. “It makes a lot of sense — turning a dealership into a supermarket of green vehicles.”

For green dealers, the challenge is that their stock is either used or not mainstream, said Mike Millikin, editor of the Green Car Congress Web site. As the mature automobile companies produce more hybrids, diesels and electric cars, these new vehicles will appear in the traditional dealerships and lure consumers back.

“The multi-platform, multi-vendor green car sales companies have a niche opportunity that will gradually constrict over time, leaving them essentially on a par with the types of independent used car dealers we see now, but in about 15 years,” Millikin said.

In Montana, Gompertz is convinced his industry will thrive. Green cars are the “next boom” because they tap into what people value — independence, innovation and freedom. Some people believe that rising gas prices, oil shortages or government regulations are inevitable and that green vehicles are the way out, he said.

“We love cars. We love driving. We don't want to lose the fun and independence of having your own car,” Gompertz said. “This is exciting, this is innovating … and you can make money doing this. What can be more American?”

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