Hybrids still sell in fairly small proportions compared to regular internal combustion vehicles.

Their introduction can be judged a fair success though. The Toyota Prius is California's top selling car, and Toyota has sold over 4 million hybrids since the first Prius rolled off the line little more than a decade ago.

Think electric cars are selling poorly? In comparison, at the moment, they are--but look back to those early years of the Prius and the sales numbers tell a very different story.

Scientific American has looked at the early sales figures for the Toyota Prius, launched in 1997, and lined them up alongside recent plug-in vehicles: The Mitsubishi i-MiEV launched in 2009, the 2010's Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf, and 2012's Toyota Prius Plug-In.

Their graph shows the relative sales over the first 36 months of worldwide sales for each vehicle (or fewer, for those cars not yet on sale for that long).

Plug-ins beating Prius

While the Mitsubishi's sales have been outpaced by historical Prius data and the Chevy Volt got off to a slow start in its first year or so, those disruptive plug-ins have all been more successful in their first few years than the Prius ever was.

Nissan's Leaf got off to the best start, with over 2,500 sales in its second month--compared to little more than 500 cars in the Prius's second month on sale. While Leaf sales have subsequently been relatively modest, the early Prius only beats it over a handful of months in the first two years.

The Volt has been the electric car segment's relative success story. It took 14 months for it to outpace the Prius, but its second year on sale has seen sales far higher than those witnessed by the Prius in year 2.

The odd one out is clearly the Prius Plug-In. Launched only last year and now into its 12th month on sale, its sales have benefitted from the last 15 years of regular Prius sales.

2013 Nissan Leaf

2013 Nissan Leaf

Patience is a virtue

That plug-in sales are currently low is less a reflection that they're unsuccessful--something that cannot be said of today's Prius, despite its early years--and more that the market is still young.

Like any genuinely new or disruptive technology, current electric vehicles are largely the preserve of the early adopters.

Technologically, they're far better cars than early hybrids--but they're equally as new, strange and scary to consumers, something reflected in low sales. At the same time, a general increase in education towards alt-fuel vehicles, plus considerably higher gas prices and environmental awareness than customers 15 years ago, has seen them outpace a car we now know has been a success--the Prius.

Existing electric cars aren't perfect for everyone just yet, and they probably never will be. There's not a Prius on every driveway, and it's been around for years.

But give current plug-ins another five or ten years on the market, and re-assess the situation. Sales already tripled in 2012, compared to 2011.

Looking back, we may all be wondering what today's "low sales" fuss is about...


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