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Excitement Is Growing, But EVs Still Have a Long Way to Go

Excitement Is Growing, But EVs Still Have a Long Way to Go
U.S. sales of plug-in electric vehicles jumped 37% in 2016, but the numbers were still a small fraction of overall new car sales, suggesting that the much-publicized pure electric car still isn’t trickling down to the average consumer.

Despite sales of 159,139 vehicles, plug-ins made up only 0.8% of the 18.38 million vehicles sold in the U.S. last year. Pure electric, battery-powered cars accounted for even less, coming in at about 0.4% of overall sales.

“For most families, it’s not a consideration yet," Chris Robinson, an analyst for Lux Research, Inc., told Design News. “The pure electric is still a second or third car for those who do buy it. It’s not a primary car yet.”

Still, the numbers are improving steadily, and with the introduction of the Chevy Bolt and Tesla Model 3, EV sales figures are expected to jump again in 2017 and 2018. “Lower battery prices will influence sales in the next couple of years,” Robinson said. “The new models aren’t as expensive to make, and the OEMs are getting excited about them.”

Indeed, automakers are investing billions of dollars in electric powertrains, and excitement for the cars is rising. The all-electric Chevy Bolt was named North American Car of the Year at the recent Detroit Auto Show, and was also honored as the Motor Trend Car of the Year in November and the Green Car of the Year at the Los Angeles Auto Show. Chevrolet sold 579 Bolts in December, the first month of its availability, according to the InsideEVs website.

The Chevy Bolt brings a 200-mile all-electric range to the lower end of the EV market. (Source: Design News)

This isn’t the first time for EVs to generate such excitement, of course. In 2010, Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn notably predicted the company would sell 500,000 Nissan Leafs per year by 2013. Nissan sold only about 22,000 in the U.S. in 2013.

Analysts say the key to producing bigger numbers lies in better price-performance, and many believe the Bolt and Telsa Model 3 will offer that. Both cars are expected to feature all-electric ranges of more than 200 miles, for prices around $30,000.

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In contrast, the two biggest-selling pure EVs – the Tesla Model S and Tesla Model X – typically cost more than $60,000. To date, pure electric cars have appealed mostly to enthusiasts with high family incomes.

Robinson sees the Bolt as a stepping stone to steady success at the lower end of the market, but not as a game changer in itself. “As innovative and impressive as the Bolt is, it’s still a $37,000 hatchback with a Chevy badge on it,” he said. “You’re still paying a premium for the electric powertrain.”

Lux Researchers don’t expect to see EVs account for the majority of new car sales for many years. By the 2030s, they say, entry-level vehicles will offer electric powertrains as a standard package, with gasoline-burning internal combustion engines as an add-on to enhance range. Only then, they say, will EVs reach a dominant proportion of overall sales. “We don’t anticipate seeing a 50% market share for electric vehicles for another 25 years,” Robinson told us.

“The growth of EVs will continue to be incremental,” he added. “The automotive industry doesn’t move quickly.”

Senior technical editor Chuck Murray has been writing about technology for 33 years. He joined Design News in 1987, and has covered electronics, automation, fluid power, and autos.

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