What happens to electric-car sales when tax credits sunset? Each maker differs

2018 Tesla Model 3

2018 Tesla Model 3

Toward the end of last year, electric-car shoppers began to think about a U.S. market without the $7,500 federal tax credit for their purchases of plug-in vehicles.

While the tax credit ended up surviving the massive tax-cut bill passed in December, some automakers are still about to face the end of the incentive.

As designed and implemented in the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, signed into law by President George W. Bush, buyers can take the full benefit for the first 200,000 vehicles any particular carmaker sells.

DON'T MISS: When do electric-car tax credits expire? (updated for 2018)

Then the tax credit starts to drop. And every automaker has been fully aware of this 200,000 limit since before it sold its first modern electric car.

It's also no secret that the three makers that have sold the most qualifying EVs are getting closer and closer to the 200,000 limit

So what happens when they hit the limit? We asked the three makers—General Motors, Nissan, and Tesla—who are nearing the limit.

2015 Nissan Leaf in front of John Hancock Tower, Boston [photo: John Briggs]

2015 Nissan Leaf in front of John Hancock Tower, Boston [photo: John Briggs]

Only one agreed to comment. Nissan told Green Car Reports it's not in any way worried about what happens when the tax credit starts to dwindle.

How electric-car buyers respond is an open question, said Brian Maragno, Nissan's director of EV marketing and sales strategy.

But the company was "very mindful of that timing" when the first 2011 Nissan Leaf was launched, he said, and the credits' sunset was built into the company's product plan.

"Vehicle programs aren't built off a year-by-year type of internal business plan," he said. "The life cycles are five years, or in the case of the first Leaf, seven years."

"So we built our planning around that volume and then we built our cost modeling and forecasting relative to investment, relative to scale, relative to technological advancements both on the manufacturing side and on the actual technology: the battery, the motor and all those things."

"The long and the short of it is that we planned for it. We put ourselves in the position that, by the time the tax credit goes away, we have programs in place so that, essentially, we don't need the tax credit to sell the vehicle."

2018 Chevrolet Bolt EV

2018 Chevrolet Bolt EV

GM and Tesla both declined to comment for this article.

Before we go any further, let's note what happens when an automaker sells its 200,000th qualifying plug-in vehicle in the U.S. and the credit starts to go away.

For the rest of that calendar quarter and the one following, everything continues as normal, with buyers of that make still able to get up to $7,500.

CHECK OUT: In an ideal world, this is how electric-car tax credits should work

Then, in the next two quarters, the tax credit amount drops to 50 percent of its original value.

In the following two quarters, it drops again, this time to just 25 percent. After that, buyers of cars from this manufacturer gets no federal tax credit assistance.

Exactly when Tesla, Nissan, or General Motors will reach the limit remains subject to speculation. But Sam Abuelsamid, a senior analyst at Navigant Research, thinks GM could be up first.

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