Casual observers of the news could hardly be blamed last week for believing that the nation's streets will soon be clogged by millions of battery-powered cars.
To understand why, all you need to do is Google "3.8 million electric vehicles." You're sure to find links to loads of news stories saying that annual global sales of electric vehicles will spike to 3.8 million units by 2020. Virtually all the headlines cite a big increase in sales of electric cars. Some stories call the growth exponential. Many articles say that there will be 4.4 million electric vehicles on the world's roads by 2020.
All the stories use accurate numbers. But before you start believing that 25 or 30 percent of vehicles will be pure electric by 2020, a few other facts need to be considered.
First, pure electric cars are expected to make up fewer than 1 percent of the vehicles sold in the US in 2020. The exact figure is 0.6 percent -- six-tenths of 1 percent. And this figure comes, not from a competing study, but from the very study quoted in all the articles.
That, of course, isn't the impression anyone gets when reviewing the collection of headlines about this important study from Pike Research. The 0.6 percent figure is essentially ignored, and many of the headlines place hybrids, plug-in hybrids, and battery electrics together in a single basket titled "electric vehicles."
Let's look at some other figures from Pike's study. It states that 107,000 battery electric vehicles will be sold annually in the US by 2020. By that time, Pike expects 261,000 plug-in hybrids per year to be sold in the US. In the world of automobile sales -- which could include more than 17 million light-duty vehicles in the US in 2020 -- those numbers are puny.
Still, the 3.8 million figure is accurate. It's a global approximation consisting of three components: 977,500 battery cars, 721,000 plug-in hybrids, and 2.05 million conventional hybrids (like the Prius) expected to be sold in 2020. The numbers appear to be relatively large, until you consider that Pike expects 96 million light-duty vehicles to be sold globally that year.
Similarly, the "4.4 million electric cars" figure is accurate but a little confusing when viewed in the absence of the rest of the study. It represents the total accumulation of pure electric cars on the world's roads, including all those purchased in every model year up through 2020. Considering that the total number of cars on earth passed 1 billion in 2011 and is still rising, that electric number is also comparatively small.