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