Electric Car Sales Doing Just Fine (If You Don't Count Hybrids)

By · September 04, 2014

Tesla Model S

Sales of the Tesla Model S were up in August, as were those of nearly every other plug-in car (except the Prius Plug-In and Chevy Spark EV). (Jim Motavalli photo)

It’s common knowledge that statistics can tell a variety of stories, sometimes quite contradictory. For instance, Edmunds.com sent this over my transom:

“Lost in the euphoria of this summer’s strong car sales is that sales of electric and hybrid cars have surprisingly stalled. Sales of electric drive vehicles (including EVs, hybrids and plug-in hybrids) have made up 3.6 percent of all new car sales so far in 2014, which is a tick below the 3.7 percent market share for the full year last year. ” (Boldface in the original.)

Edmunds analyst Jessica Caldwell said, “With the success of the auto market this year, this is a story that’s flying under the radar. Everyone reasonably assumes that the electric drive market will continue to grow incrementally, but we're just not seeing any growth this year.”

Cars With Plugs Hitting New Highs

She’s right—as long as you lump hybrids in with plug-ins as “the green car market.” Look at cars with plugs separately, and there’s a whole different story. In July, according to the Electric Drive Transportation Association, 11,433 plug-in electrics were sold (InsideEVs says 10,533). And, EDTA says, the first six months of 2014—with 66,406 cars sold in the period—is 37 percent ahead of the same period in 2013. Compare July 2013 to July 2014 and sales are up even more, 54 percent.

Look at the chart below, and we’re in a pretty good year for plugs, and certainly ahead of 2013’s pace (which led to approximately 100,000 cars sold nationally). In August, the Nissan LEAF added about 1,000 sales compared to July, bringing the number to a new record of 3,186 units. The Volt added about 500 for a monthly tally of 2,511. The BMW i3 practically tripled from July to hit 1,025 sales. Taking a plunge was the Prius Plug-In (down about 500 to 818) and the Chevy Spark EV (from 128 in July to 80 in August). Everything else was up, including Tesla.

EDTA Sales Chart

Sales look robust if we're looking only at cars with plugs. (EDTA graphic)

Not a Stand-Alone Market?

I asked Caldwell about this, and she admitted that I had a good point about separating plug-in sales, but she dissed the idea of electric cars as a stand-alone phenomenon. “It’s such a small market with, what, 11,000 cars sold in July?” she said. “There were 1.5 million cars sold in the U.S. in August. I don’t know how much smaller a market we could be talking about.”

Yes, it’s definitely small—but still growing. Most of the growth—and sheer numbers—are in California, which has the best incentives, the best plug-in network…and the most cars for sale. Only the Tesla Model S and the Nissan LEAF are available nationally, but nearly 20 models are available in California (which now claims nearly 40 percent of the EV market nationally).

According to Christine Kehoe, executive director of the California Plug-In Electric Vehicle Collaborative, “Electric vehicle sales in California are strong, and they have momentum. Consumers want clean cars, and plug-in electrics are mile-by-mile cheaper than gas cars. They’re an opportunity to take green driving to the next level.”

So why are hybrid sales suffering? The Toyota Prius is down 10 percent this year, and that reflects the stardust rubbing off. Because there are so many around, it’s hard to claim that you’re driving a green car status symbol. In that sense, the Prius is a victim of its own success. In August, Toyota sold more than 23,000 Prii, putting the model in the top ten of all passenger vehicles for the month.


· · 3 years ago

Is it possible that this means that plug-ins are mostly taking sales from hybrids? From your last paragraph, it sounds like you might agree:

"Because there are so many [Prii] around, it’s hard to claim that you’re driving a green car status symbol."

· · 3 years ago

I do think plug-ins are taking some sales from hybrids, but that's not likely the major factor in the decline in hybrid sales. A lot are going to high-efficiency gas cars. For instance, if they hybrid version gets 45 mpg, and the gas version 40 mpg (but is also $5,000 cheaper), well, who can blame the informed consumer?

· · 3 years ago

The problem is that the original article used the term "electric car". Every follow-on article I've seen on this topic assumed that they meant, well, electric cars. That is, plug-ins, not hybrids. So the follow-on articles then sprinkled in opinions - which are apparently allowed in a "straight news" article if you put them in quotes - about why plug-ins are doing so badly. Higher prices (actually not, as most readers here know), shorter range, no longer novel, etc.

The facts are as reported here - Electric cars are a tiny percent of the market but is growing rapidly, in the process creating infrastructure, standards, conventions, and manufacturer knowledge. Hybrids are declining slightly as a percentage of ICE cars, and I don't think anyone knows for sure all the reasons why.

But there are a lot of people who viscerally, desperately, want to see electric cars fail. And those people will quickly gobble up misleading reports like this, add their own spin to them and broadcast it to everyone who will listen. These are largely the same people who fell for the lie that 47% of people in the US don't pay federal income taxes (true on a little known technicality involving the formal definition of different types of federal taxes,, but in fact in 2009 81% of people paid taxes with their 1040 forms, and most of those who didn't were retired). Also largely the same people who fell for the lie about the earth cooling and similar lies about the trends in government spending and employment. Unfortunately, the fact that such a large number of people so readily believe and propagate outright lies is a critical problem without an obvious solution.

· · 3 years ago

Thanks for this report Jim, Ms. Caldwell's 'hot' quotes have been getting under my skin for the past couple of days. I am also a bit bothered by her dismissive response to your questions about what she said.

It disturbs me to see how analyst make statements about 100% EV's as if they are sold nationwide, are just a slight variation of gasoline cars. The informed person knows that with each sale of a 100% BEV, a reeducation is required, along with vehicle expectations for the first time in 100 years. The fact that sales are increasing so rapidly (year-over-year) with such limited product availability is amazing. Yet this is not recognized by 'expert analyst' in the field.

I get it, the market is all about sales and a less than 1% market share is not what people like Ms. Caldwell are paid to pay attention to. However, I do think that what she said was deliberate because negative new on EV's is clearly encouraged. The good news is that 100% EV's are quickly making gains and Nissan is learning how to sell them to the masses and Tesla is learning along with them.

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