2012 Toyota Prius Plug-In Hybrid - production modelEnlarge Photo
Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn has said many times that for his company, the "hockey stick" upturn in sales will come around 2016, when the company and its alliance partner Renault together can build half a million electric cars a year or more.
Even allowing for some slippage, that means that 2018 might be the point where "regular" buyers begin to consider plug-ins seriously.
By then, they may have rented one, they may have ridden in a relative's or a neighbor's electric car--and, just like hybrids, they'll have learned that they're not quite so foreign or nervous-making as they'd thought.
2020 or later
For the rest of the industry, that hockey stick may come in 2020 or later.
So what does that mean? That means that for the next decade, electric cars will remain rare.
That corresponds to the adoption curve of pretty much any expensive new automotive technology. It took a decade or sometimes several before electric self-starters, automatic transmissions, disc brakes, fuel injection, turbochargers, and other advances became mainstream.
So it will be with plug-in cars.
Most early buyers: It's not about cost
One final note: There's widespread misunderstanding about the early buyers of plug-ins, all of whom can afford them. And contrary to the conventional wisdom, many or most of them don't do so because electric cars will cost them less money in the long run.
2012 Chevrolet VoltEnlarge Photo
The early buyers of plug-in cars include early adopters, technology enthusiasts, uber-greens, energy security folks, and those who I fondly call the "cheap bastards"--the folks who calculate total cost of ownership like fleet buyers, and plan to own their plug-ins long enough that they actually see a payback.
Each of those five groups is a distinct audience, but they are far from the mainstream buyers who will start to consider plug-ins six to 10 years from now. (Just as plenty of mainstream buyers are now comfortable enough with the Toyota Prius hybrid, after 12 years, that they have made it Toyota's third best-selling line of cars in the U.S.)
The widely accepted idea among auto journalists that electric cars are a non-starter because they cost more to own is uninformed--just as uninformed as the expectation among some environmentalists that a third of the cars in showrooms in 2020 will have plugs.
Better driving experience is the hidden ace
As costs come down, the biggest appeal of electrics for the future mass market could well turn out to be driving experience.
An electric car is simply better to drive than a comparable gasoline car. It offers lots of low-end torque, it's smooth and quiet, and there's no shifting going on.
Spend a week in a Nissan Leaf, and then return to your similarly sized gasoline or diesel car. You'll be surprised at how raucous it is and how much mechanical stuff is going on in the background.
We just don't know
Of course, the great thing about the future is that we can never predict it.
Gas pumpEnlarge Photo
So any projections of electric-car sales are only estimates, based on what we think we know today.
And as always, there's a huge asterisk on any mid- or long-term sales estimate: "This projection may be affected by unexpected changes in global oil prices."
If for whatever reason, oil prices fell to $50 a barrel and stayed there, prospects for plug-in car sales emerging from early adopters and tech geeks into the mass market would be dimmed considerably.
But few people expect that to happen.
1 percent globally in 2020?
Assuming that oil prices stay at $70 a barrel or higher for some years--or, even worse, oscillate from lows to highs and back again--it's reasonable to expect plug-ins to make up 0.5 percent to 2 percent of global production in 2020.
One to 1.5 percent is a relatively conservative estimate, meaning 800,000 to 1.5 million cars depending on total global production.
Just as an aside, the cost of lithium-ion cell fabrication plants to produce 1.5 million car's worth a year (assuming 20-kWh battery packs) could run as high as $5 billion itself.
Meanwhile, electric-car sales in the U.S. might be higher, perhaps 2 to 4 percent. That would be 300,000 to 600,000 vehicles, assuming our market stays around 15 million vehicles on average.
So the next time someone tells you "electric cars are a market failure," smile indulgently at them. Pat them gently on their shoulder. Say something like, "Yes, dear, I know."
And then run them through the numbers.