One of the most common myths repeated and repeated and repeated in mainstream media (and even in cleantech and EV media) is that plug-in electric vehicles (PEVs) aren’t selling well. Quite to the contrary, for this stage of the technology’s evolution, they’re selling very well.
The first question that probably comes to mind for you here is: “If most other reporters and bloggers are saying that they aren’t selling well, why do they think so?”
I think there’s one main reason why these other people are more negative about this matter — expectations. (And, really, that’s the root of all of our disappointments, isn’t it?) In the case of PEVs, there have been some very ambitious expectations. Because the expectations were so high, and actual sales have been quite a bit lower, everyone is saying that PEVs aren’t selling well. However, they are selling quite well considering that they are a completely new type of car.
Plug-In Electric Vehicles Versus Conventional Hybrids
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.
In other words, early plug-in electric vehicles have seen sales similar to early hybrid sales, or even better.
And why is all this important? Because hybrids now account for a large portion of the automobile market. Last year, the Toyota Prius actually became the 3rd most popular car in global auto sales. It also became the most popular car in California (which doesn’t surprise me — last time I was in California, I saw a Prius just about every 5 seconds).
Furthermore, plug-in electric vehicles (and especially 100% electric vehicles) are considerably different for the consumer end than hybrids were compared to gasoline-powered cars. With a conventional hybrid, your driving and fueling up is the same as it has always been. Whereas plug-in electric vehicles mean plugging your car into a socket or EV charger. The larger the change, the more likely people are to be cautious about it. While the difference in plugging in versus filling up a gas tank isn’t all that big a deal (and is actually more convenient), the shift surely keeps a good number of people from quickly making the shift.
The implication of all this, however, is that PEVs will be selling like hotcakes in a handful of years.
Why Were The Expectations So High?
So, the question remains: why were sales expectations so much higher than they should have been? I’ve got a few guesses.
1. Car companies looked at the numbers — the overall cost of car ownership for a gasoline-powered vehicle versus a PEV — and figured PEVs would be a smarter choice for a large number of buyers. However, unfortunately, buyers aren’t so rational in their purchasing. Most do not look beyond the sticker price and also compare the full price (or full cost) of automobile ownership when comparing cars.
2. Car companies didn’t anticipate the anti-PEV media attacks and overall messaging that slowed sales of the Leaf and Volt.
3. Car companies thought consumers would be much more excited about fuel-efficient, green cars that cut our oil use and emissions. (After all, a large majority of citizens are supportive of “being green” and cutting our emissions, and are not fans of oil companies or oil wars.) In particular, after the rise in hybrid popularity, I think Nissan and GM anticipated consumers would more easily take the “step up” to PEVs.
Pretty reasonable assumptions. Unfortunately, they were a bit off.
However, I think that as people slowly come to realize that PEVs are actually cheaper, that the anti-PEV propaganda most people in the media have been pushing is BS, and that PEVs are actually more convenient than gasmobiles, we will start to see these numbers take off. I think the fact that PEV sales beat hybrid sales in their second full year of sales in the U.S. is an early indication of that.