Are Electric Cars A Sales Failure, Or Sold Out Due To Demand?

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Polar Charging Post and Nissan Leaf

Polar Charging Post and Nissan Leaf

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You see it all over: the meme that "electric cars are a sales failure."

Yet California is experiencing shortages of electric cars, with many dealers saying they've entirely sold out of plug-in electric cars.

Some Nissan dealers in Portland, Oregon, even say the Leaf electric car is now their best-selling passenger car.

So are electric cars irrelevant in overall sales, or hugely successful?

The answer is: both.

They're doing well in certain progressive areas of the country, largely invisible elsewhere.

Early projections unwise?

The "electric cars are a failure" meme may stem from the failure of GM and Nissan to sell anywhere near the number of Chevy Volts and Nissan Leafs they had predicted they would deliver during those cars' first and second years.

Experienced advocates had always suggested that first-year numbers would be small, and build gradually.

In retrospect, it was unwise for either company to announce specific goals--which automakers generally shy away from doing for other models.

Partisan gain

But the real challenge--and the secret to some of the vituperation--is that plug-in electric cars are associated with one political party, and with that party's president.

Which means that they're being attacked not on the merits, but purely to score partisan points.

This was first laid out in an excellent piece by auto writer Drew David Winter, Why Innovation Is Dying In America that sadly got very little attention.

Consider a article entitled, Study looks at expensive new ways for Obama administration to push electric car sales.

It's housed in the news section of Fox News, although it reads more like an op-ed. And it repeats the "disappointing sales of electric vehicles across the country" theme.

Nissan Leafs break the world record for largest electric car convoy

Nissan Leafs break the world record for largest electric car convoy

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Sales triple, then double

In the end, the numbers tell the story.

In 2011, a total of 17,500 plug-in electric cars were sold in the U.S. Last year, that number tripled to about 53,000. This year, they're on track to double again, to more than 100,000.

For any other new technology or car type, that growth curve would be a rip-roaring success.

Just like hybrids, electric cars will slowly get less alien as the first person on the cul-de-sac to have one shows it to neighbors and lets everyone drive it.

Over time, drivers of conventional cars come to understand that plug-in electric vehicles may be different, but they're largely understandable.

And as battery costs come down, while stiffer fuel-economy regulations raise the cost of gasoline cars, the price difference will narrow steadily.

Progress takes time

That said, two observations. First, adoption of electric cars was always going to take a long, long time.

It takes many years for major advances in automotive technology to make their way into volume production: Think automatic transmissions, disk brakes, fuel injection, electronic traction control systems, etc.

Some end up being mandated by government action, others simply come down in cost to the point where they're no more expensive--but much better--than the older technologies they replace.

Tesla Model S with DISRUPT license plate, March 2013 [photo: Sam Villella]

Tesla Model S with DISRUPT license plate, March 2013 [photo: Sam Villella]

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This classic adoption curve takes patience and endurance. It will be a decade or more before total plug-in numbers even begin to be noticeable among our global fleet of more than 1 billion vehicles.

Progress is hard

Second, progress is hard, and filled with setbacks, and often discouraging.

Talk to veterans of any civil-rights movement, or the AIDS-activist alumni of ACT UP, or the activists now fighting for marriage equality.

Nothing worthwhile doing is ever easy. A long-term perspective--"keeping your eyes on the prize"--is crucial to success.

Just ask the employees of Tesla Motors.

Not to mention that democracy and a free press, making up John Stuart Mill's "marketplace of ideas," are often messy and horrifying to see close up.

Like sausage, the final product is a good thing--but watching it being made can be scary.

NOTE: This opinion piece was adapted from a discussion with electric-car advocate Bob Tregilus as he put together a newsletter for the Electric Auto Association of Northern Nevada (EAANN).


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Comments (30)
  1. I remember when my first neighbor got a Prius, I wanted to drive it but she wouldn't let me, it was that cool. When my dad got a Prius 7 years ago, I had zero interest in driving it, that's how mainstream it had become. I foresee the same things happening with Electric, except they're actually a lot more fun to drive than classic hybrids.

  2. "But the real challenge--and the secret to some of the vituperation--is that plug-in electric cars are associated with one political party, and with that party's president."

    Hey, all I know is that the current administration took away the existing tax incentive for buying a clean diesel vehicle, and is trying to push electric and hybrid vehicles left and right! If that is not discrimination, I do not know what is!

  3. Just to add to the mix. The $7500 tax credit on EVs actually came from the Bush administration.

  4. Really nice thoughtful piece.

    "vituperation" perhaps as a service to your readership, you can hyperlink words like this to the speaking dictionary :)

  5. Concise, and yet arguably florid verbiage is the linguistic confection of any self-respecting stalwart of the English language, aka: "the American writer." They enjoy sneaking those little tidbits in there to surreptitiously educate, tender the fancy of and ultimately enrich the reader's vocabulary. To a language geek, this is like discovering easter eggs written in the code.

  6. "Talk to veterans of any civil-rights movement, or the AIDS-activist alumni of ACT UP, or the activists now fighting for marriage equality."

    You are equating technology and social issues. Those two things are not the same! Essentially, you are trivializing and equating civil rights with technology. That, in my opinion, is very wrong to do, and is misleading.

  7. That's exactly the point. Electric cars and clean technology are polarized by social constructs and mental frames (worldviews)that have nothing to do with the technology.

  8. I think the point is "cultural change hard and takes time"… and in choosing the type of power-train and energy sources we use (daily) is just as much a cultural decision as technological. The adoption of electric vehicles today may not be as big a technology change as going from horse & buggy to a the iron horse; but the cultural change is quite broad, and more obvious in hindsight.

    Technology is more intertwined in our culture today than it has been in human history. What would "social media" be today without modern technology?

  9. civil rights moved when the business community realized that black customers and female employees drove up profits.

    as the economic case for electrics becomes clearer, the adoption will become straightforward. Hybrids are mainstream because the gas savings and better driving is clear.

  10. Electric cars are not a failure, like most new things they are growing but the growth will take time. This failure talk is political, a certain party dose nothing these days but oppose and hate the other party stifling productivity. If they'd get to work rather then worrying about getting richer maybe we could pickup the pace rather then continuing to fall behind.

  11. I'm not buying the progress is hard and slow narrative when it comes to adoption of new technology. If you look at cellphones, smartphones, social networks and so on its really stunning how quickly new technology is adopted if it offers amazing benefits at a good price point.

    So far EVs don't do that due to limitations in battery technology making them expensive and/or limiting their practicality. If at some point the battery conundrum is solved adoption will be at an exponential curve because the potential benefits are amazing.

  12. Cell phones and social media did not have competition. They did not eat another industry's lunch. With EVs there is a huge loser, big oil; and they will fight it by politicizing the technology, and having their puppet party and its media outlets.
    If today you are in a two car family, and you are out in the market to replace one of those cars, an EV is the smart option. If both of you live further than 40 miles from your workplace then you have a location problem, not an EV issue. Move closer.

  13. Negative Juan on so many levels. Cell phones had competition with land lines, who wants big clunky radiation right next to their head? When pricing came down, and size, and radiation levels hopefully, cells were mass adopted. Big Oil is going to continue to sell oil for 100 years? Forever? (plastics etc) And if you live 40 miles from work, hopefully work as a perk, will install chargers that will charge in less than 8 hours esp. in the south and west where sunshine shades for cars will have panels on top.
    Non of this is meant to be personal or absolute truth, just other things to think about.

  14. Expensive is a relative term. And your argument is based on the idea that EVs are expensive, which for many of us is simply not true. Practicality is also relative. My wife and I find our Leafs quite practical, fulfilling 99% of our driving needs.

  15. I won't speak to the compliance cars as they are short-supply due to planned limited production. The Volt is currently in over supply by about a 3 months supply on hand, at lease nationwide. For the Leaf and Tesla however they are currently supply constrained. I understand the Tesla however I don't understand why the Leaf is so constrained right now. There is less than a 3 week supply and almost all dealers in the Seattle area are short on supply. Some reporting that it will be 30-45 days before they get more. This must be some sort of production problem in Smyrna slowing things down. I think that is Nissan had more Leafs to sell they would sell them all, they just need to make more.

  16. There are two current factors that will lead to the selling of EV's.

    1.Cutting of base pricing
    2. Fast Charger station infrastructure

    That has occurred in states that have adopted a mandate.

  17. I would add more range to that list. My opinion is that the Tesla would not be half as successful if it had the range of a Leaf. When everyday EV's can reach 150 or 200 miles range they will be much more sought after.

  18. Hey, I know plenty of GOP voters who have bought Leaf, Volt and Tesla. So, don't be such sterotype.

    But the "conservative" media has done more than its share bashing the EV movement.

    You would think that "conservation" would be part of their agenda... But it is "conservation of oil company profit" the part of their agenda...

  19. @ John Voelcker,

    I agree with your statement. Drew David Winter's writing is very good. I especially agree with the following statments:

    "But if we continue on this path, Republicans will be bragging about destroying one of Detroit’s greatest achievements and Democrats will fund a whiny movie called “Who Killed the Volt?” that blames everyone but the liberal hypocrites who did not buy one."

    I might also add that some of those so called liberal hypocrites are also "bashing" the Volt because it is NOT pure BEV, it still got an engine, its design is too complex...etc.

    Sometimes, I wonder if GOP is right to label some of "liberals" as "America haters"... I certainly feel ashamed to be grouped with them as "progressives"...

  20. To add to that, most other nations support their own corporation's innovation. But some Americans don't. They feel that anything Detroit does are nothing more than crap and they are in bed with oil company.

    Sure, GM might have done some of the stuff. But liberals never give it a chance to "change". The whole attitude of hanging on to the EV-1 debacle really bothers me...

  21. Sorry not buying it. I drove a Buick LaCrosse for several months, just to see what driving a GM is like again - except for the smooth ride, everything else about it sucked. The rear view camera lens (a hack) was already fogged up inside, after only 15,000 miles. The car had poor visibility and way, waaayyy too many electronics, and the automatic transmission constantly denied my requests to up/down shift, even though it was in "manumatic" mode. And I only got 22 MPG. Hypermiling it.

    "Smart and sexy Buick". Riiiggghhhttt. "GM foreva!"

  22. So, you judge an automaker with one of its product designed for old people? Either you did that on purpose or you really don't know about cars.

    Why don't you go and test drive a Caddy CTS 2.0L DI with manual transmission?

  23. Oh, btw what is the model year of that Buick LaCross that you drove again?

  24. I consider myself to be a progressive liberal, and I am proud of it. As far as I am concerned, the majority of the voters sent a very clear message by voting in a democratic president and saying to no republicans, that they want a more modern, liberal, social state, and that they have had enough of the "every man for himself" policy.

  25. "the majority of the voters sent a very clear message"

    You sound more like a "libertarian" than a democrates or progressive for that matter.

    BTW, if you think 52% is really all that convincing, well, don't hold your breath for 2016.

  26. i like the volt but if i am dropping this kind of money i want V2G, V2H, Field power out of the car.

  27. I agree. I think there is no reason why GM can't offer that option with an inverter. This will especially make sense a larger pickup trucks. A naturally portable generator with Battery backups...

  28. I read this Fox News story the day it came out and it was more of a hit piece than an op-ed. They mentioned the Fisker bankruptcy twice, once in the first sentence. But, they never once mentioned the roaring sucess of Tesla, just days after they paid off their DOE loans. They also called EVs "largely a failure", when it's obvious the sales are growing at a very healthy rate for this period in their development.

    I guess EV haters just gotta hate. Auto analysts hated on hybrids too when they first came out. I don't see any of them admitting they were wrong, now that millions of Priuses have been sold. In a few years, when there are $25-30K EVs with 200-300 mile ranges, these same bozos will be hating on the next big thing.

  29. A lot of people simply don't have the time or courage to think for themselves, so all of these narratives continue making their rounds. Even in the most casual conversations, qualifying people is a necessity. Finding intelligent discourse, especially about the philosophies behind EVs has become a challenge.

  30. There is something no one can disproof, electric cars have done as well if not better then when hybrids were introduced over a decade ago, and in the middle of a recession.

    It's like that saying that you can cut all the flowers you want, Spring will come nonetheless.

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