Electric Cars Will Evolve Rapidly By 2018, Split Into Segments By Price

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Chevrolet Bolt EV electric car development prototypes in testing, Jan-Jun 2015  [from GM video]

Chevrolet Bolt EV electric car development prototypes in testing, Jan-Jun 2015 [from GM video]

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Electric car sales may be flat this year. Heading into 2016, only a handful of new vehicles are likely to move the needle much.

The long-awaited, multiply-delayed Tesla Model X all-electric SUV should finally go into volume production next year, presumably giving Tesla Motors a major sales boost.

DON'T MISS: GM Shows Chevy Bolt EV Electric-Car Prototypes Testing: Video

The 2016 Chevy Volt, with 53 miles of electric range, will be on sale--and possibly a 2016 Nissan Leaf with somewhat higher range as well.

The next major launch will then likely be the 2017 Chevy Bolt EV, a 200-mile electric car with a price of $37,500 before incentives. It is expected to go into production late next year.

Nissan Leaf 'Advanced R&D Electric Vehicle' shown at company annual meeting, Yokohama, Jun 2015

Nissan Leaf 'Advanced R&D Electric Vehicle' shown at company annual meeting, Yokohama, Jun 2015

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A second-generation Nissan Leaf, with much higher range available, will also come onto the market in 2017.

But fast-forward three years from now, and the range of available electric cars will look very different indeed. We'll focus here on battery-electric models only, not plug-in hybrids.

Four factors are affecting more than a dozen different electric cars now in development:

  • Recognition that 150 to 200 miles of real-world range is needed for mass-priced battery-electric cars to sell in volume in the U.S.
  • German luxury makers' shock at the looks, range, driving qualities, and huge popularity of the Tesla Model S
  • Continuing rollout of DC fast-charging networks, with the Tesla Supercharger system as a model
  • The end of the "travel provision" in California's zero-emission vehicle sales rules

Tesla Model S at Supercharger site in Ventura, CA, with just one slot open [photo: David Noland]

Tesla Model S at Supercharger site in Ventura, CA, with just one slot open [photo: David Noland]

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Together, these will lead to a new division in the market for battery-electric cars available as we move into the 2019 model year just 36 months from today.

And that market will probably break into two rough segments.

On one end will be smaller, mass-priced battery-electric vehicles under $40,000; on the other are larger, longer-range electric luxury vehicles that pretty much mimic the Tesla approach.

ALSO SEE: How Audi, BMW & Mercedes Plan To Compete With Tesla--And Why (Oct 2014)

In the first group will be the Bolt EV, the second-generation Nissan Leaf expected for 2017, a tall BMW all-electric compact crossover that may be called the i5, and probably the Tesla Model 3.

Whether Tesla, with its huge following and positive brand image, can get the Model 3 out the door in 2017 as promised, at a price of $35,000, remains one of the big questions.

Certainly its track record to date in meeting its own launch deadlines has been poor.

Tesla Model X prototype on Arizona road, July 2015 [by YouTube user count783]

Tesla Model X prototype on Arizona road, July 2015 [by YouTube user count783]

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And the mass-produced and much lower-priced Model 3 has a lot less margin for error, even if most versions will likely go out the door at prices of $45,000 to $55,000.

Still, if the Tesla Model X luxury crossover utility finally launches as promised at the end of this year, and it's innovative, reliable, and sells well, that may indicate that Tesla's product team has buffed up its vehicle launch skills after the slow and challenged arrival of the Model S in late 2012 and early 2013.

Nissan and BMW have considerably more experience in vehicle launches, and while we know little about the second-generation Leaf or the reputed i5, we'd expect those vehicles to hit their launch dates--whatever they turn out to be.

MORE: Why Electric Cars Are Rare Outside CA: Arcane 'Travel Provision' Rule

All three cars should be in volume production by late 2018, and they'll probably be joined by a slew of second-generation cars that serve the function of "compliance cars" to meet California's zero-emission vehicle rules.

The so-called travel provision in those rules ends for 2018, meaning that makers will have to meet specific numeric sales targets in each of the dozen states that have adopted California emission rules. Previously, sales in any state counted toward every state's mandates; that will no longer be the case.

That will mean higher production volumes, even as California's volume requirements start to ramp aggressively upward from 2018 through 2025.

To remain competitive, these second-generation compliance cars will likely have ranges of 150 to 200 miles as well.


 
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