Are plug-in cars selling badly?

© GM

Compared to what?

Electric cars are selling rather well. Does that sound controversial? It's something that I've been writing for a while in many different articles, but it's worth repeating because it seems like these days, every other article about plug-in vehicles is about how they're not doing well (usually written by people for whom "long-term" means next week). That's only right if you had unreasonable expectations. Here are the facts:

1) As our friend Zachary Shahan writes over at EV Obsession, plug-ins are doing as well or better than non-plug-in hybrids were doing at the same stage of their development:

U.S. Toyota Prius sales totaled 15,556 cars in the model’s first full year, while Honda Insight sales we considerably lower at 3,788.

U.S. Chevy Volt sales totaled 7,671 cars in the model’s first full year, while Nissan Leaf sales totaled 9,674.

So, 19,344 units of the the first two hybrids were sold in the U.S. market in their first full year, compared to 17,345 units of the Leaf and Volt.

In year two, 15,600 Toyota Prii were sold and 4,700 Honda Insights were sold, versus 23,500 Chevy Volts and 9,800 Nissan Leafs. So, in year two, PEVs are beating hybrids by about 13,000 units. Additionally, plug-in electric vehicle competition has increased much faster, with most major automobile companies now having one or more PEVs on the market. (source)

The big difference is that during those first few years, hybrids were totally under the radar and expectations for them were very low (most people probably expected them to be a fad -- after all, gasoline was so cheap at the time).

Brian Merchant/CC BY 3.0

2) Another important thing is availability. Most plug-ins are first introduced in only certain countries, and often in only certain regions within those countries. Dealerships only get a few units of inventory, if any at all. All of this is getting better over time as production ramps up, but it does mean that for at first, a lot of people who might be interested will end up not buying now either because the plug-in they want is not available where they live or because there's a waiting list.

3) People want the best deal, and it's pretty obvious with EVs and PHEVs that they are getting better every year, that prices are coming down, and that the number of charging stations is increasing exponentially. Unless you're an early-adopter who just has to have it now, sometimes the best move is to wait a bit. It doesn't mean that there's no demand, just that people prefer version 2.0, when all the kinks are ironed out and there's a bigger support ecosystem out there.

Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

4) Transportation is usually people's second biggest expense after shelter. Unless you've been living in a cave since 2007, you know that the world economy hasn't exactly been vibrant in the past few years, and this certainly has an impact on the sale of expensive stuff like plug-in cars. It's not easy for the industry to try to achieve economies of scale (which would make prices go down) during this period. If the very same vehicles had been launched during a period of economic vigor, they'd probably have sold better.

5) Politics is also a factor. For some reason, partisan hacks have decided to turn hybrids and plug-ins into a symbol rather than just seeing it as a useful technology under-development, with evolving pros and cons. It probably won't matter too much by the time prices have come down enough to make electric vehicles affordable to most people, but in the meantime, it is an unwelcome headwind.

6) Even car-makers couldn't be sure how many units they would sell. It's a lot harder to predict these things for entirely new technologies than for the 10th generation of the Corolla or whatever. Whether they have over-estimated how much would be sold or under-estimated it doesn't make the current numbers a failure or a success. Otherwise, they could just always provide ridiculously low estimates and always beat them.

Youtube/Screen capture

Conclusion

I could probably find a few others, but you get the idea. The mainstream media meme that "electric cars are doing badly" is only true if you have unrealistic short-term expectations. This is a marathon, not a sprint. Plug-ins are off to a decent start, all things considered, but it's too early to know how they will ultimately fare.

See also: Nissan LEAF reaches 50,000 units sold worldwide

Tags: Electric Cars | Electric Vehicles

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