PHOTO CAPTION: Toyota introduced the Prius into North America in 2001, after its initial launch in Japan in December 1997.

New EV Sales: Where Should We Be?

Tali Trigg compares the sales of the original Toyota Prius to the current crop of EVs and finds reasons for optimism.

Published: 23-Feb-2013

Electric vehicles (EVs) have come under siege in the media in the past two years, with several observers pointing to shortcomings like driving range, performance in cold weather and resale value as indicators of their imminent demise. Do we know for sure that EVs will overcome all these challenges? No. But we are seeing impressive year-on-year sales, declining battery costs, a decarbonizing power sector, and cities around the world committed to reducing congestion and local air pollution. For these reasons, EVs should not be dismissed and are among the best options to decarbonize the transport sector while boosting a flagging automotive sector, creating jobs, and reducing local air pollution.

The real question asked by few is this: where should EVs be today? The answer should probably be framed in terms of technological development and a close proxy for measuring development would be another vehicle such as the hybrid electric vehicle (HEV). In Figure 1, you can see new vehicle sales versus over time since the vehicle’s initial market launch (date of introduction in parentheses). This figure shows that all major battery electric vehicles (BEV) and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEV) are on track or doing better than what the Prius HEV was doing at a similar time. Of course, this is not strictly an apples-to-apples comparison (it does not take overall vehicle market into account, nor potential subsidy effects, for example), but does help us evaluate a true answer, beyond the press eager for a fail-or-victory message.

Figure 1. Months Since Market Introduction (Updated Until December 2012)

EV Sales Since Product Launch - Tali

The truth is, given that EVs were only released in 2011 to a full range of consumers worldwide, a doubling of sales (approximately 120,000 in 2012 vs. 45,000 in 2011) is not bad growth. Of course, the key is to keep this momentum to hit intermediate-to-long-term targets, but still; perhaps the death of EVs is greatly exaggerated?

The simple truth is that EVs are coming along, but they are going through a delicate phase that most new technologies experience in the early years when only so-called “Early Adopters” begin buying the product, being less sensitive to a higher price point. Consider the MP3 player in the late 1990s, before Apple introduced the iPod in 2001. Another parallel “product” launch was the Internet, which transcended product state and spurred a systematic reinvention of information sharing in a revolution that took years, not days. EVs similarly have the potential to integrate into the power grid and do much more than get you from Point A to Point B.

Bottom line – EVs are a new or (depending on your perspective) revived technology – and as such must pass through several stages of technological development, optimization, and scale-up. Today’s EVs are far better than the models sold a decade ago, but the costs are still high and infrastructure is still being developed. In the next two or three years, there may only be a few tens of thousands of EVs produced and sold around the world, but this period will allow for a much bigger expansion of markets toward the middle of the decade. By 2015, there is a good chance of EVs and plug-in hybrids becoming cost-competitive (or nearly so if including subsidies) with conventional gasoline and diesel vehicles.

The reason EVs (or fuel-cell vehicles for that matter) get lambasted or unequivocally praised is that we are tempted to look for a silver bullet to our energy security, economic, and environmental problems. Yet there is no need for a zero-sum game. Whichever advanced vehicle technology we pursue, at some point we cannot get better efficiencies or lower CO2 emissions from conventional gasoline and diesel cars. Even hybrids will have trouble reaching below 90 grams of CO2/km. In contrast, plug-in hybrids could go under 90 grams of CO2/km and full electric vehicles could reach well below 50 grams of CO2/km in areas with clean electricity. Either way, we need to make a sound investment, and electric vehicles are a far sounder investment than the cost of doing nothing.

The widespread deployment of EVs will take time. The Electric Vehicles Initiative, a coalition of 15 key countries, together has set a target of over 20 million EVs on the road by 2020. This is achievable, but even this will just be a small share (about 2%) of the world’s cars at that point. But it will set the stage for EVs to play an increasingly important role after 2020, and especially by 2030. The International Energy Agency (IEA) projects that EVs could account for 15% of the world’s vehicle fleet by 2030 and over one half by 2050. But we have to start somewhere.

Besides EVs, there are other promising alternative vehicle configurations, but what is clear is that EVs offer promise by virtue of their energy efficiency, relying on existing infrastructure, and can be considered desirable high-tech consumer products, all of which together makes these vehicles one of the likeliest technological solutions to lowering CO2 emissions in the transport sector in the next 40 years. However, improving conventional fuel economy and better urban planning and public transit options should be higher near-term priorities in the next 10 to 20 years. These parallel challenges can and need to be achieved, but not at the expense of the broader goal: ensuring reliable, affordable, low-carbon transport.

The promise of an EV is beyond replacing one vehicle type with another; rather EVs offer a clean solution in the near-term as cities try to understand how to best reduce congestion and local air pollution. Car sharing, two-way interactions with the electricity grid, and fleet economies are but three reasons for why the value proposition of EVs is greater than that of yet another hyped vehicle technology.

About the Author

Tali Trigg is an international energy and transport analyst whose expertise is in transportation issues and technologies, with an emphasis on smart growth policies, bus rapid transit (BRT), and electric vehicles (EVs).

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