Plug-in vehicles taking the slow road to 1 million in sales

Plug-in electric vehicles are not selling as quickly in the US as boosters had hoped. A new report estimates that it will be 2018 before 1 million such vehicles are plying US roads.

By , Staff writer

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    A sign is painted on a parking space for plug-in electric vehicles inside a car park in Hong Kong in January.
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The goal of putting 1 million plug-in electric vehicles on America's roads is apparently going to take longer than some – including President Obama – had hoped.

Given current trends in sales and barring some unforeseen major event, that number will be attained in 2018, according to a new report by Pike Research, a Boulder, Colo.-based clean-energy market research firm. Mr. Obama, when he first campaigned for president in 2008, vowed to get the nation on the road to energy independence by putting 1 million plug-in electric vehicles on US roads by 2015.

The challenge is that public acceptance of the new plug-ins is not coming as quickly as had been hoped. 

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Still, sales of high-tech plug-ins – vehicles powered mainly by electricity – from 2010, 2011, and the first five months of 2012 are occurring at a faster clip than did sales of gasoline-electric hybrids, such as the Toyota Prius, during their initial launch years. Using those trend lines, Pike Research says US sales of plug-in vehicles will reach 47,966 units in 2012, making the US the largest adopter of plug-in electric vehicles. The US is expected keep this role as an "early adopter" at least through 2020.

Included in that figure are about 28,000 plug-in hybrid electric (PHEV) vehicles such as the Chevrolet Volt, which use batteries to run on all-electric power before switching to a gasoline-engine backup to continue travel. Then add about 20,000 in sales of battery-electric vehicles, like the Nissan Leaf, that use a larger battery to go farther on all-electric power, but then require a charge.

Chevrolet last year had predicted US sales of about 45,000 Volts this year but is projected to fall well short. General Motors shut its Volt production line for five weeks in March and April to reduce inventory; it has now resumed production. Nissan has also sold fewer of its all-electric Leaf vehicles than it had hoped. But Toyota has begun selling a plug-in Prius now that is selling well – and Honda, BMW, and other manufacturers have jumped into plug-in production, too.

“Those betting on strong early growth curves hoped that battery prices would quickly fall, positive word of mouth would quickly spread, or automakers would introduce new models more quickly,” the report adds. “There is little evidence that any one of such breakthroughs will happen to any significant degree in the next 5 or 6 years.”

Gasoline prices have not soared high enough or long enough, manufacturers have been tentative in their roll-outs of the new technology, and the cost of the batteries still make the vehicles seem like near-luxury items to many.

“The PEV market will develop and grow, but not at the scale or pace previously anticipated by key proponents of the technology,” the report says.

Still, many manufacturers, makers of charging equipment, and other stakeholders hope to reach the 1 million goal soon, citing expected technological breakthroughs and a faster rate of consumer adoption.

Obama, too, hardly seems to have abandoned the idea of putting electric vehicles on the road en masse. In March, he unveiled an “EV Everywhere” program – with $650 million in US Energy Department funding – aimed at reducing the cost of owning plug-in vehicles by focusing on breakthroughs in advanced batteries, electric drive-train technologies, lightweight vehicle structures, and fast-charging technology.

The initiative sets a new goal: for US companies to produce by 2022 a five-passenger affordable electric vehicle with a payback time of fewer than five years – with a cost that is low enough, a range that is far enough, and a recharging ability that is fast enough to appeal to average Americans.

That's no small challenge. The global plug-in electric vehicle market is currently on pace to sell 600,000 units a year by 2015 and 1.7 million units by 2020, says Pike Research. By 2020, worldwide sales of battery-powered vehicles will reach about 3.4 million – out of 103 million expected sales of cars and light-duty truck sales.

“Slightly lower battery costs will mean slightly lower purchase prices, spurring increased production of cars with slightly more range and easier charging. Positive word of mouth will slowly spread,” the Pike study found. “Of course, a big wild card is gas prices, which are expected (but cannot be guaranteed) to rise.”

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