Strong sales for 2011 Leaf and Volt shows bright promise rather than dismal flop
Are the electric cars from Nissan, GM and Tesla a flop or a success? With the first year of sales figures from Nissan and GM in our hands we have more data with which to ponder what this means for the future of transportation. Viewing this experiment as a success or failure depends on ones point of view, your expectations, and perhaps whether you own millions of dollars in oil company stocks.
The last part of 2011 showed strong sales growth for the Chevy Volt (723 in September, 1,108 in October, 1,139 in November and 1,529 in December), while Nissan Leaf sales were lackluster (1,031 in September, 849 in October, 672 in November, and 954 in December). For the year the GM sold 7,671 Chevy Volt's to the 9,674 Leaf's sold by Nissan. This makes a total of 17,354 electric cars sold by Nissan and GM, in the U.S.A., in 2011, with other automakers such as Tesla selling several hundred more electric cars.
For comparison, MotorTrend reports GM's total sales for 2011 were 2,503,820 vehicles. There were 415,130 Silverado pickup trucks sold in 2011, and 231,732 Chevy Cruze cars sold in 2011, and the list of vehicles sold by GM goes on and on. Compare these numbers to the 18,000 or so total electric car sales in 2011, or the Chevy Cruze, with 16,675 sales in December alone, you could rightfully think electric cars are a flop, kill the program, and lets move on to something more attractive. Indeed, you can find reports quoting many people making this exact argument. Electric car sales are a drop in the bucket, they're not making any impact, we're wasting our money on this stuff, on and on.
That is one perspective, but hardly the only, from which to view the facts. What about year-on-year sales growth, a figure many analysts like to look at. The problem here is that in 2010 the only electric cars being sold was the Tesla Roadster, conversion electric cars from a handful of conversion shops, and the few Leaf's and Volts delivered in late 2010. This means perhaps 500 electric cars were sold in the U.S. in 2010, giving us a 35x sales jump from 2010 to 2011. If reported this way, the headline would scream about a 3469% sales increase. But this would be just as misleading, because of the discontinuous jump in the number of available electric cars, as it is misleading to compare Volt sales to Cruze sales, an exercise many are doing (such as Rep. Kelly; see Why is an oil stock owning Congress member pushing to end EV tax credits?).
Just because we have no grounds for for a valid comparison between 2010 to 2010 electric car sales doesn't mean we should ignore the 35x (or so) sales jump. Instead we have a concrete demonstration we are in a new era of transportation, an era where for the first time large numbers of modern electric cars are widely available with promises of increasing production numbers as well as more electric car models from more manufacturers. (see A look at the electric cars coming in 2012 and A look at the plug-in hybrid cars coming in 2012)
One year from now we'll be able to compare 2011 electric car sales to 2012 electric car sales, and if predictions hold out we can rightly be excited over real serious sales growth. Both Nissan and GM expect to dramatically increase production of the Leaf and Volt, and those cars will be joined by the Ford Focus Electric, the Mitsubishi i-MiEV, the Tesla Model S, the Toyota RAV4 EV, the Scion iQ EV, the Smart ForTwo Electric Drive, and the Honda Fit EV as well as several plug-in Hybrids such as the Ford C-MAX Energi and Toyota Prius Plug-in.
From this perspective, 2011 laid the ground work for a large expansion to come for electric car sales in 2012. The 2011 sales demonstrated the need for electric car charging infrastructure, showed us there are people ready and willing to buy electric cars, showed that modern electric cars can fit into traffic with the rest of the vehicle fleet. It even showed that in the face of a seriously overhyped overblown rhetoric on Chevy Volt safety in the wake of a battery fire, that the customers not only kept buying Volt's, but that sales jumped dramatically in November and December.
It's all well and good to say 2011 laid the ground-work, but is there a concrete measure with which to judge electric car sales? Some want us to compare the Volt to the Chevy Cruze saying that the Volt is nothing more than the Cruze with a different drive train and a higher price. That may be, but does that make it a valid comparison? It is valid to compare sales between two similar gasoline powered cars, but is it valid to compare sales between a gasoline car and a plug-in hybrid (a.k.a. extended range EV) like the Chevy Volt? No, they're very different cars under the hood, they live in different price ranges, and there are many extra considerations an electric car purchaser must address before buying.
A better comparison might be between the introduction of hybrid cars in the U.S. in 1999, and the introduction of modern electric cars in the U.S. in 2011. In both years saw the introduction of a new sort of vehicle that hadn't been seen before on a mass scale. In 1999 with the introduction of the Honda Insight and Toyota Prius, we were introduced to the hybrid car, which 12 years later now comes in a dozen or more models from the various automakers. In 2011 with the introduction of the Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt (as well as the existence of the Tesla Roadster), we were introduced to the modern electric car, and presumably in 10 years or so there will be a couple dozen models from the various automakers.
North American sales of the Toyota Prius was (according to the Wikipedia's page on the Prius) 5,600 in 2000, 15,600 in 2001, 20,100 in 2002, 24,600 in 2003, and then in 2004 sales began to take off with 55,900 followed by 109,900 in 2005. The original model Insight introduced by Honda the same year never saw the same sort of sales growth, selling only 14,288 units between December 1999 and Feb 2009 when the second generation Insight was launched. Today, in early Jan 2012, we just finished the first year of modern electric car sales, and with upwards of 17,354 total electric cars sold in 2011 that is over 3 times the sales of hybrid cars in 2000, their first year of sales.
Are electric cars a flop? Many voices in todays politics and media want us to believe they are, and have constructed evidence to make us think they're a flop. Is their perspective the only valid one from which to interpret reality? Hardly. It may be too early to render a final verdict on the success or failure of electric vehicles. The initial results look positive, however.
About the reporter: After 22 years in Silicon Valley's software industry David Herron is now writing about green transportation (electric vehicles) from Silicon Valley. He also runs the popular electric vehicle discussion forum, visforvoltage.org, and is the author of the book "Node Web Development".