Let's Stop Comparing Early Hybrid Sales to Early EV Sales

By · March 01, 2013

Nissan LEAF

Don't compare early LEAF sales to that of the Prius: The latter was a barely promoted brand-new technology in 2000.

Electric car sales are up 198 percent! That’s the upbeat news delivered during an Electric Drive Transportation Association teleconference last Tuesday. “Automakers are committed to electrification, there are 22 new plug-in models to be delivered by next year, 5,375 public charging stations in the U.S. now," said Brian Wynne, EDTA’s president. "And we’ve seen a 198 percent EV sales jump—a stronger growth trend than we saw with mainstream hybrids a decade ago.”

That’s all true, but comparing the first year or two of sales of hybrids to what we saw in 2011 and 2012 with EV sales is mostly positive spin.

Deceptive Numbers

EV numbers are up, yes, and sales of the Volt and LEAF are up 46 percent from last year. But the growth is from a very small base. Total 2012 sales of battery cars and plug-in hybrids was 52,835 in the U.S., EDTA reported. But the agency’s chart also includes regular hybrids, and lumps them in to get a 3.38 percent “electric drive market share.” Without the hybrids, it’s a fraction of one percent.

Let’s look at January. Again according to EDTA figures, 2,022 battery cars were sold, compared to 34,611 hybrids (and 2,354 plug-in hybrids). You can look at that as a growing electric drive market share of 3.75 percent, or you can look at as a minor retreat from December (2,704 battery cars) and November (2,211). But let's face facts: battery cars still aren’t denting the sales charts.

Apples and Bananas

Toyota and Honda—the only players in the field then—started out very slow with American market production of the Insight (1999) and Prius (2000). Advertising was next to nil, and executives at the companies had little interest, faith, or personal investment, in seeing hybrids succeed. The Insight, as a two-seater, was never expected to have more than a niche audience. Toyota was shocked when the Prius found customers. That has to be contrasted with the big media push given to the Nissan LEAF and Chevy Volt.

Few people in 2000 understood that hybrids existed or how they worked. It was still the SUV era. The general consensus was that they have to be plugged in, and that hurt sales for quite a while. But even in 2000, some 5,600 Priuses were sold in the U.S., and 15,600 in 2001.

In 2003, the third full year of the U.S. hybrid market, there were 47,000 hybrid sales. In 2004, sales jumped to 85,000, and then came 2005, when sales of gas-electric hybrid zoomed to 210,000 sales. And the growth continued.

In January, hybrids had a very respectable 3.3 percent market share in the U.S., HybridCars.com reports, the highest level since April 2012, thanks to a host of new models, including the VW Jetta, Toyota Avalon, Mercedes E400, Ford C-MAX and Audi Q5. Will EVs be at 3.3 percent a dozen years into the market? Will EV advocates be happy if they are? Will the comparisons with hybrids still be going on?

Toyota Prius

The Prius is the little hybrid that could, with sales exceeding 3.3 million cars worldwide. (Toyota photo).

Through October, 5.8 million hybrids were sold worldwide, 4.6 million of them Lexus or Toyota products (and mostly the Prius). Even Honda, a hybrid also-ran, despite its early entry with the Insight, has sold more than a million of them. Nobody’s yet sold a million battery electric cars, and it might take more than 10 to 12 years before they do.

John Gartner, an analyst with Pike Research, looks at the global market in 2017 and sees annual sales of 1.64 million hybrids, with 486,000 plug-in hybrids and 616,000 battery cars. I think that's a bit optimistic on battery vehicles, but even if it comes true, hybrids will still have a big advantage.

Steady As She Goes

“The battery numbers haven’t been slower than I anticipated,” Wynne told me. “We have had only two full years of sales, so the jump I cited is indeed from a lower base. But we have more and more cars out there—they’re actually well distributed around the U.S. at this point. And the automakers are doing a better and better job of serving a national market. This is technology competing against a very robust competitor with a 100-year head start.”

Wynne thinks we’re on the right path, that the EV market isn’t stalling, that it’s continuing to move forward. We’re essentially agreed there, that the market is starting slow and moving forward incrementally. Bumps in the road—car fire controversies, images of EVs being pulled by tow trucks, winter range issues—haven’t derailed the plug-in car.

The toughest hybrid-to-EV comparison is still many months away, when EVs complete their third full year on the market. But let's be clear: The hybrid's meteoric growth in 2005 is not likely to be repeated for EVs, so we might as well stop making the comparison right now, before it's used to show that electric cars are a doomed technology.


· · 5 years ago

What is your point? Did hybrid receive such negative blast from the conservative right as Volt has received in the last 2 years? Sure, the marketing for the Plugins are bigger today than it was for the hybrids. But the media also didn't blast it as much as it did back then.

Don't forget that large % of the hybrids sales were helped by the CA HOV lanes stickers by then, and the same is true for today's plugin.

Also, EVs are also more expensive relatives to today's car price than hybrid back then.

Prius were sold for a premium over MSRP back when the carpool stickers were out. Today, neither Volt or PIP are sold over sticker b/c of the HOV sticker.

Plugins will get better as the AVERAGE consumer understand how cheap a plugin is to operate just as more consumer that will understand how a hybrid is today.

Sure, hybrids have sold for nearly a million. But majority of that gain came in the later half of the first decade. Same will be true for plugins.

The simple fact is that EV/Plugins are at least 1.9x more efficient than the BEST HYBRIDs. The more efficient it is, the better it will get.

I do agree that PHEV/EREV will outsell BEV by a long shot in the near term...

· · 5 years ago

Oh, another fact to mention, the BEST selling Plugin today is Volt. The Best selling Hybrid is the Prius.

The Volt will "spank" the Prius in just about every performance category.

Maybe we should pass a law to prevent all PUBLIC (STATE, City and local) government from using tax payers money to purchase the Prius (NOT made in USA) and see what happens to the Prius sales...

· · 5 years ago

While this perspective is fresh and, in some ways, I agree with it, I would also say that, Jim, you're making a pretty grand statement here -->"Let's be clear: The hybrid's meteoric growth in 2005 is not likely to be repeated for EVs".

We're still 3 years out from the 5-year mark for plug-ins in the U.S. and a lot can happen in 3 years, including unforeseen world events which result in substantial gas price hikes. Not saying this WILL happen, but it certainly could, and, if it does, here's betting you might end up eating a bit of crow at that point ;-)

· · 5 years ago

Plug in sales will increase as long as power prices are reasonable. But if "POWER PRICES WILL NECESSARILY SKYROCKET", to quote a popular politician, then people will have little incentive to buy them besides the few die hards that read these columns.

· · 5 years ago

Electricity prices have historically been much more stable than gasoline. It pretty much hasn't increased beyond inflation (let alone skyrocketed) for the past decade, nor is it projected to the next one.

· · 5 years ago

Electricity can come from many different sources, and those sources are distributed all over the earth. Renewable energy sources by definition will be here as long as the earth will be here - about another Billion years. We can gather far more energy from all the various renewable energy sources (wind power, solar heat and PV, tidal, wave, geothermal, biogas, etc.) and they have virtually no pollution.

Oil and coal and gas and uranium are finite.

The energy supply for electricity is virtually infinite.

The cost of electricity will be very stable, and it might even go down. It will get cleaner and cleaner over time.


· · 5 years ago

Jim, I have followed most of your writings, including your books, but this time I completely disagree with you. This type of market penetration comparison is common to see how fast new technologies are adopted (TV, VCR, PCs,cell phones, etc), and comparing PEVs with HEVs is the only fair comparison.

There are three very interesting recent comparisons of this type from Scientific America and two from the DoE (the Wikipedia article PEVs in the US has the web links). From the SA article you see that the Volt and the Leaf are beating the conventional Pruis (globa sales, not just US), but also that the Prius performed better than the iMiEv during its first three years in the market.

As for the DoE comparisons, you see that the Volt, Leaf an PiP are performing better than the conventional Prius in the U.S, but it is interesting to note that the Prius PHV is the best performer among all EVs compared.

In the end, PEVs will prevail only if their TCO, and particularly their purchase price is competitive with conventional ICE cars, advocacy and nick picking comparisons will not help. As any other technology already widely adopted, PEVs will have to stand on their own merit.

· · 5 years ago

Also, what exactly accounts for the meteoric growth of hybrid sales in 2005 - that key information is missing from this column. I suspect spiking gas prices as a result of the Iraq War spiked hybrid sales in 2005. And, once this happened and many more people were exposed to hybrids by gas price motivation, many more people came to like them. Kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy: The more people who have hybrids, the more people who buy them, in part because they (have had) them. The same thing could easily happen to plug-ins with a major gas price spike. And, like hybrids, once that gas price spike followed by exponential plug-in purchases occurred, I don't see plug-in sales suddenly dropping through the floor, even if gas prices came down again, which, in the roller coaster world of gasoline costs, I suspect they would.

· · 5 years ago

I tend to agree with Emc2 - while we shouldn't compare exact Year1 hybrid vs Year 1 EV and so on it is still a useful comparison.

Now in 2013 with hybrids now extremely common it's hard to remember just how alien and exotic they seemed in 1999 - and much of that persisted until just a few years ago. If you went to a Honda or Toyota dealer back then, as I did, their own attitude helped communicate that these were very unusual cars, requiring special care, at a significantly higher price than other cars, and with a lot of compromises to help them achieve high mpg. I can't remember all of the compromises now - but I do recall that the Toyota had special low friction tires that hurt breaking but improved mileage.

I can't tell you what happened in 2005, but this is precisely the sort of even that is talked about in that marketing classic "Crossing the Chasm". The idea is that new tech starts with innovators and early adopters but then must somehow, someway "cross the chasm" from the enthusiasts into the mainstream. Many great new tech concepts fail to do so and end up in the dust bin. Somehow in 2005 there was a) enough critical mass of existing hybrids to give the early mainstream buyers confidence in getting their own hybrid, and b) enough of a track record, 6 years, of success with existing Hybrids to ease fears of batteries dying early. It also helped that Toyota had updated the Prius to be a "normal" car, without all the special compromises made earlier (of course Honda was still clinging to their "mild, parallel" hybrid design so didn't help with the adoption of hybrids - it would still be a few years until, like with the Odyssey, they abandoned their initial approach and copied the Toyota approach).

Will EV's be able to achieve the same kind of marketing "chasm crossing" as Hybrids did in roughly year 6? Hard to say. I'm pretty sure Plug-in Hybrids are certain to once the pricing becomes competitive, because today hybrids are already fully mainstream and being sold in large numbers, and the step to plug-in is a small one.

BEVs have one disadvantage that might make the move to the mainstream slower than for hybrids, but also one key advantage that may offset that. The disadvantage is simply range. And I'm not sure how much the deployment of a large infrastructure of charging stations will help that. Let's face it, drive 50 miles in a Leaf and even if you do have a level 2 recharge it's going to be several hours until you can make the trip back. Many of us can cope with that and are willing to make the compromises needed, but we're the early adopters. On the other hand, the advantage is that BEVs don't have the automatic "exotic/alien" label on them like hybrids did in 1999. If the range issue can be addressed there really isn't anything else preventing the already huge segment of hybrid drivers to move into BEVs.

· · 5 years ago

Jim raises a good point.

Despite the lack of advertising for the Prius I'm not sure that's the biggest factor indicating we should not compare BEV's to early Hybrids. Enthusiasts will let each other know of a technology they are interested in, advertising is most effective on a mass market, not an innovator market.

If we look at the price of gas in the early 2000's we find it at about $1.50 or less. Remember the economic slump after 2000? Price of gas is a big driver for fuel efficient vehicles. The Prius had a lot going against it.

Right now we are in an economic slump as well, but the price of gas is much higher. High enough to attract buyers to fuel efficient vehicles. I agree with Jim that comparing PHEV and BEV sales spikes to the early Pruis is not worth much due to external factors such as gas prices affecting demand.

· · 5 years ago

Toyota came out with the Prius at the end of nearly a decade of extremely low gas prices. Their marketing was targeted to people who wanted to be green, not cost effective. I remember seeing an ad, probably in a magazine, and then following up through Toyota's channels, including an 800 number, to see if the car could operate in Minnesota winters. Toyota had the right amount of marketing for the niche. I worked for a CA company at the time, and we needed a car for use in LA. The owner saw the advantages of that car in that city, bought one of the first Prius's in the US, and bought another a few years later. Demand outstripped supply for many years, and dealers were charging a premium over list. Toyota didn't have to do the traditional TV saturation advertising.

However, I could never personally justify the extra cost of a Prius vs. a 30 mpg commodity car for driving around the Twin Cities at highway speeds. The real advantage of the car was stop-and-go, slow-speed driving. Even today, with higher gas prices, there are several non-hybrid cars that can get the highway mpg of a Prius without the added cost of the hybrid technology. A few years ago, an experiment was down where hybrids were given to random drivers who had no training for maximizing the efficiency of the cars. Their mpg results were about the same as non-hybrids. Today, I see a lot of Prius's on the freeway being driven at 70+ mph. The days of Prius's being the slowest cars on the road are gone. I think it is not so bad, but not the true car of the future.

I have a totally different view of EVs. With off-peak power, I am paying 10 times less for fuel. That's a game changer. Battery prices decline 6-8% per year. The moving parts of the EVs are substantially simpler. I believe that EV prices will drop as ICE prices steadily climb, both for purchase and for operation. We should not compare the early sales of EVs vs. Hybrids because they are on very different technology curves. EVs are close to the start of the seven-doublings curve of new technologies, with a large potential to become more practical and more cost effective. Hybrids are near the end of their curve, and it has been mostly flat.

As others have pointed out in this thread, electricity can come from many sources, and some of those sources can be very green. I don't know what the energy sources will be in 100 years, but I would bet dollars to donuts that future energy will be delivered as electricity. Convenient, portable hydrocarbon fuels have a limited life. The challenges of electrified transportation will be overcome, step by step, until ICE transportation will be the least desirable option.

· · 5 years ago

I think the boom in hybrid (Prius) sales in 2005 was due to the introduction of the 2nd gen Prius in 2004. That car was far more popular than the 1st gen US market Prius. I think it's purposeful aero look was part of the reason of it's success when compared to the 1st gen generic looking car. I think Larry David's show on HBO helped promote it as well.

· · 5 years ago

It is rather odd that we're suddenly asked to not compare early hybrid sales with present day electric ones, when this blog features a monthly sales statistic column that pits the Leaf against the Volt.

We're all a little obsessed with sales statistics here. Perhaps I simply wasn't paying as close attention to it a decade ago, but I don't remember such nay-saying emphasis on possible imminent failure of hybrids if they didn't sell so many by such and such a date. Back then, people seemed more interested in how the technology worked and if the vehicles were a practical choice for their particular lifestyle, rather than placing speculative wagers on if Toyota would fail if they didn't move more units this month than the previous one.

· · 5 years ago

To follow-up on why a spike in hybrid sales in 2005: There was indeed a substantial rise in gas prices from 2004-2005, as average U.S. gas prices climbed above $2 during that year.

But the biggest spike is from 2005-06: They go from $2 to above $3, which obviously had a big psychological impact. The same psychological impact would likely occur if we push above $5 as a national average in the U.S. I'd bet money on plug-in hybrid sales (not necessarily BEV sales) surging in almost exactly the same way as hybrid sales did in 2005, once we hit $5 as a national (not just California) gas price.

US EIA Weekly Gas Prices Averages -->http://www.eia.gov/dnav/pet/hist/LeafHandler.ashx?n=pet&s=emm_epm0_pte_nus_dpg&f=w

· · 5 years ago

This comment thread is old and few people will read it but I feel compelled to ask Jim Motavalli, "Have you been smoking crack?" US sales of plug in vehicles was up roughly 300% in the second full year of sales. The highest growth year for hybrids was 250% which was the year gasoline prices skyrocketed due to hurricane Katrina. The first two months of 2013 plug in sales are up 224% compared to the first two months of 2012 and this is WITHOUT a huge spike in gasoline prices. Jim, put down the crack pipe!

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