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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