Electric Cars Are Niche, And That’s Okay
Is it time for electric car advocates to reset expectations? Can we openly acknowledge that EVs will remain a small niche market until 2020 and beyond—without experiencing a sense of defeat, or wallowing in depression?
Here we are, into the fourth quarter of 2012, and we can safely say that, for EVs, this year has, well, sucked. The news earlier this week that A123 Systems is going out of business is only the latest in string of stories that has included: dismal sales of the Nissan LEAF; wilted LEAF batteries in Arizona (and mismanagement of the problem by Nissan); dealers resorting to deep discounts to move plug-in cars; the use of EVs as a political football; one misstep after another by Fisker and other EV-makers; a growing number of EV suppliers and start-ups going out of business; roll-out of charging infrastructure moving at a snail’s pace; and an entire field of electric cars from Mitsubishi, Ford, Smart, Honda, and Coda barely showing up as blip on the sales radar.
There have been some glimmers of hope—with rising sales of plug-in hybrids from Chevy (in the form of the Volt) and the Prius Plug-in Hybrid. Tesla rolled out the first units of its very impressive Model S—although production has been slower than expected and the company is not financially out of the woods.
Even with all the bad news and delays, there have been 31,113 sales of plug-in cars through September—which is a 178 percent increase from last year. So far this year, plug-in car sales represent just under a half-percent of the new car market. How much growth can we expect? Perhaps it’s over-used as a proxy, but conventional (no-plug) hybrid cars are doing relatively well this year, a dozen years after introduction. Through September, there have been 322,516 hybrid sales, or 3 percent of the new car market. There are more than 40 models available with some form of hybrid technology.
The Real Thing
Still, by most standards, hybrids are a niche. Would we we feel okay about EVs at 3-percent niche status a dozen years from now? Can we live with another few years of what we experienced in 2012?
I say yes. That’s because I did a lot of driving in my EV yesterday. I drove my 2011 Nissan LEAF from Berkeley to San Jose, where at my first stop, I found a free open charger next door to my first appointment. My 50-mile trip to San Jose, in the carpool lane even while driving solo, was a great ride. At my second meeting, across town at a corporate high-tech campus in San Jose, I found a Chargepoint station at a primo location in the parking lot. It was effortless to use with a swipe of a card. The dollar-per-hour fee was a bit high, but for a couple bucks, I was able to top up for the trip back to Berkeley. (I even got automatically texted when the battery was full.) By virtue of convenient public charging and a competent well-made EV from Nissan, I was able to complete the 100-plus mile trip in comfort, moving at a brisk pace with AC in full use, and not using an ounce of petroleum.
During the day of driving, all the broader economic factors and market missteps didn’t cross my mind. They became abstractions. On the other hand, my experience behind the wheel of an EV was real and compelling. Even a few short months ago, I wouldn’t have been able to drive (and charge) with the same level of convenience, comfort, and fun—while cutting my ties with gas stations, tailpipe emissions, and the entire problematic oil drilling, production and distrubution pipeline.
EVs are a niche. They are likely to remain a niche for some time. For now, I’m cool with that—because there’s a long century stretched out before me, and my kids. For me, and them, and probably many readers of PluginCars.com, there’s no turning back. We’re driving electric from here on out—no matter how long it takes for the niche to become a trend, and the trend eventually to become the norm.
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