Plug-ins now outselling electric-only vehicles in green car buying shift

Over the past year American green car buyers have started to switch from all-electric to plug-in electric vehicles. Why are the battery electrics losing ground?

Electric vehicles that run only on their batteries (BEVs) are being outsold in the US market by vehicles that have the ability to run on electricity alone, but also have an on-board gasoline engine. For this story we are going to call all of those “plug-ins.” We examined two sources who carefully compile all manner of electrified vehicles’ sales. Plug-ins have come from behind and now the sales are clearly in favor of the plug-in electrics.

The Past Three Electric Vehicle Years
Modern electric vehicles have now been in the US market for more than 3 full years. The Leaf went on sale in 2010. Concurrently, the Volt, a vehicle that is basically electric, but also has a gasoline engine that can charge the battery, also went on sale that year. Both have been near the top of the US sales for electrified vehicles since. The Leaf has emerged as the number one vehicle of both BEVs and also all electrified vehicles.

Shortly after these two cars were launched the market began to be peppered with many new entries. Most notably, the Tesla Model S. The Model S is hugely important. It was a breakthrough vehicle that redefined everyone’s expectations of what an electric vehicle can be. Its sales climbed more or less in keeping with the company’s promises to the top of the EV charts. Tesla's sales peaked in 2014, plateaued, and have now come down significantly in the US as Tesla culls its limited production for sales to other markets (Europe, China et.). Tesla has dropped to about 4rth in US EV sales now. That is an important thing to note.

The Power of Prius
The Prius is the world’s dominant green car in its hybrid form. By that we mean the gasoline hybrid Prius we all know, which does not charge up with a plug. It outsells the electric car market – The whole market combined. Toyota was begged by owners to create a plug-in version that could run for a short distance on just electricity. It created that car, called the Prius Plug-in, and that vehicle is now number two overall for 2014 YTD after the Leaf. We would have called that simply the power of Toyota’s green branding of the Prius. However, then another plug-in, the Ford Fusion Energi rose up and this month was number two behind the Leaf for the month of June. Now in the top 6 electrified vehicles, we see four plug-ins and just two BEVs. Behind the five we have spoken about already is the Ford C-Max Energi, another plug-in. There are no other electrified cars that even approach these six in monthly sales.

Plug-ins Pull Ahead
Looking back over the past 12 months we see that since July 2013 the plug-ins have begun to pull ahead steadily. One month it was close, but all other months the plug-ins outsold the BEVs. Over the past 5 months it has been a widening gap. In June of 2014, this past month, the plug-ins put up 6,511 units and the BEVs just 4,982. The plug-ins were ahead by 23%. This is the result of many months of the plug-ins gaining on the BEVs. It is not just one unusual month.

Why Are Plug-Ins Outselling Full Electrics?

Many people assume that range is the simple answer to why green car buyers chose the cars with some form of range extender. Whether it be the BMW i3’s very limited gasoline range adder, or the Volt’s ability to go roughly 40 miles on electricity, but always on gas if the driver chooses, or in the form of a mostly gasoline powered car like the Prius Plug-in, which can go about 5 to 10 miles on electricity alone, buyers seem to prefer the option of being able to fall back on gasoline. Others say that the drivers of the plug-ins realize that any of these choices are very green, are doing the math, and are finding that the savings are maximized for them with a car that can go electric sometimes, but also drive on gasoline if need be. We won’t pretend there is just one answer.

Toyota Breaks From the Conventional Wisdom
Toyota recently kicked the electric car bee hive a few ways. First, Toyota made a video for its website that promoted its hybrids and implied BEVs took too long to charge up. The all-electric faction was enraged and the forums were full of nasty grams and lots of fact-checking. Then in a few different speeches top Toyota USA officials made no secret that they think full-electric BEVs don’t work, and won’t work, for most of the American public. They are betting on fuel cell electric vehicles, while building every form of electrified vehicle and also dominating the global green car market with their Prius.

Toyota may have made a ham-fisted attempt to explain why BEVs are not working the way many had hoped, and Toyota may be wrong about fuel cells. However, a look at the sales numbers shows that Americans aren’t buying more fully-electric vehicles now than they were a year ago as a percentage of total US vehicle sales. With the huge government support and taxpayer subsidies provided to these BEVs shouldn't we be seeing steadier progress?

The real fly in the ointment for the plan to go all-electric is the fact that those who do want some kind of electric car are buying one with a gasoline motor included more often than they buy a BEV, and the gap is getting bigger.

UPDATE: Shortly after publication we were alerted to George Betak's excellent report on the BMW i3's production numbers comparing the Range Extended vs BEV i3. The upshot is that it jives exactly with the premise of this article in that the split seems to be about 3:2 now in favor of the i3 with an on-board gasoline range extender. It should be noted that the i3 is only in its second month of US production.

Thanks to Torque News Alum, Nick Zart for his recent post which inspired this story.

Source one Inside EVs’ monthly sale charts of all EVs
Source twoEDTA’s similar numbers courtesy of electricnick.com

Comments

Can we just call them PHEVs? Because generally the term plug-in refers to both PHEVs and BEVs. The biggest reason for rise of PHEVs is availability. More PHEV options are appearing and they are becoming more promoted due to people's awareness of electrification. BEVs on the other hand, most still continue to remain compliance cars in limited areas. It would also be incorrect to say that Americans are switching from BEVs to PHEVs. I am more willing to bet the switch comes from hybrids and gasoline vehicles. And I would not be surprised that many of those PHEV owners will be BEV owners next time they try to buy a car. (Due to the effect of them becoming conscious of the difference of miles they drive)
You're spot on. If I could do it over I would define PHEV and use that term instead of Plug-in. Going forward I will. Thanks for the heads up and the comment.
Wow. The sales numbers are microscopic. I agree with Weapon, the EV numbers will uptick when consumers come to terms with actual daily miles driven. looking to the Accord Hybrid, we find a car that will drive 14 miles or more on battery power alone. For most commuters, that covers the (one way) commute to the office. The only advantage I see to the plug in is possible " grid interface" as demonstrated by Honda in Davis California. You know, that smart-house power sell back thing.
There's some really cool next generation electric vehicles coming soon... check them out in the transportation section of the MIT Climate Colab.
I *really* like the statement, "We won’t pretend there is just one answer." because that it's true. In our household, we saw early on that electric was a great way to go, but that charging away from home was a hassle. Even here in Los Angeles where there are lots of chargers around, they can be more expensive to use than buying gas, or can be in inconvenient locations, etc. Charging at home is easy, cheap, and keeps me from having to go get fuel somewhere out of my way. So a PHEV was the best way to go. My commute is 32 miles so all week long I drive 100% electric and only have to charge at home. But when I go on longer trips on weekends I don't have to worry about charging. I just let the range extender do it's thing. We started with a 2011 Volt and, contrary to one comment above, three years later not much has changed so we went with a 2014 Volt and continue to enjoy PHEV's benefits. But, we also needed a second car for errands and appointments. We got a Chevy SparkEV which is a BEV with about 85 miles of range and it's exactly right for the job. So, it isn't an either/or situation. PHEVs are a great solution right now and will be until reasonably priced chargers are in every parking space. Then too, when I can do a round trip of 200+ miles without charging in an affordable BEV, we won't really need a PHEV for the weekends anymore. Tesla is a great car, just too expensive. We have both the Volt and SparkEV for half of what a Tesla would cost.
I think what is happening is MORE people are entering the "Alternative Vehicle" market and first they are "sticking their toe in the water" and trying PHEV's... I believe the word is out that gas vehicles are old technology. BUT people are wary....its like the Simon & Garfunkle song's words; "the animals are skeptical of changes in their cages"A few are ready to immediately jump to BEV's but for many many converting buyer's they want that "security blanket" of a gas engine. BUT...they are working at driving as much as possible on a little fuel as possible....seeking to achieve the most all electric miles as possible. This bodes well for future BEV sales, in my opinion. As people see they can drive 30 or 40 miles without the gas engine clicking in.....and they don;t need the 400 miles (or whatever) of the gasoline + electrons.....then in the future they may buy a full BEV. Now, the next issue that needs discussion is how many BEVs are there to choose from? First eliminate the "city cars" and "neighborhood vehicles" that can't be driven on the highway. The Nissan Leaf is just about the only mid range size EV that most working people can afford. Spark is a tiny car, Fiat 300e is a tiny car, Ford Focus EV is a mid size car, but its quite expensive, even with the rebate. What other mid size EV cars are there? It is ludicrous to criticize BEV sales when there is such a limited opportunity to buy BEVs and they are priced so high....(I think the high price tag is part of the Detroit state of mind to discourage BEVws because so many stockholders also are highly invested with fossil fuel. We'll see what happens as more affordable pure BEVs' become available....especially the $35K Tesla. I am very anxious to see what the new Tesla model in the $35K price range will look like.
These are all excellent comments and I won't argue. One thing I will say is that I polled the BMW i3 buyers (thanks to them letting me have access to their forum). The ones I polled were people with i3s on order or in the driveway. Yes, they are early adopter i3 buyers, but no, they are not at all new to EVs. Most are on their second EV, many their third. Even in this EV-savvy group, the split is 3:2 in favor of the REx (on-board gas version)i3. I'm not convinced that "once people smarten up they will all want BEVs instead of PHEVs." These people are pretty freaking smart when it comes to EVs. Time will tell...
John, I believe you would have to include on the analysis for the BMW sales, that the option for the range extender is so cheap at $4,300 it becomes cheap insurance against the rare time when you need a little more range rather than a decision to go BEV vs PHEV. Also, since I am a Focus Electric owner I can say that the price of the Focus EV is about the same as the Leaf with the current rebate and sales numbers are totally controlled by dealer availability and dealer enthusiasm. One local Leaf dealer sells one or two a year while the neighboring dealer averages 15-25 per month. The Ford Focus EV and Nissan Leaf are as comparable as any two vehicles can be in price performance and features across manufacturers, but the sales directly reflect the buy-in of the company and dealers. No dealers in the midwest have sold more than a handful of Focus EV's because they are being starved by Ford or they don't request them. As long as the dealers don't have the supply of BEV's and PHEV's to sell the types of vehicles sold will only reflect what the manufacturers supply to the dealers. Another example I can site is even though the Mitsubitchi I-MiEV is currently the lowest price BEV in the US and is a very nice vehicle, the fact that there are only 2 available in all of the midwest and none in Ontario will really control how many are sold.
I'm glad you wrote in Bruce. You highlight that indeed the world of EVs is far form a "free market" where buyers can configure their green cars any way they like. Many are not even offered anyplace except select markets. Overall though a buyers' market is starting to emerge. This won't be the last word on the BEV vs the PHEV, but for now, in this artificial market, the PHEVs are growing in sales faster than the EVs, which it is sometimes hard to argue are even growing at all in any meaningful way, possibly due to manufacturers restricting them. - I also like your Mitsubishi comment. It could be argued that a car like the I-MiEV is not even a real car in the sense that it is a choice people can practically make. It is also very hard to type which could be limiting its press :) I've said that before about the Scion iQ EV, which to me is not really a viable model. Thanks
Another thought - Is a BMW range extender offered at $4300 really "cheap" in any real sense? It is about 1/4 the price of a Corolla LE Eco.