Electric Cars Looking for a Spark
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The idea of electric cars has been around for more than a century. In fact, an electric vehicle held the vehicular land speed record until 1900. Henry Ford bought his wife two electric vehicles in the early 1900s. But the costs and the technology have never been just right in order to produce electric vehicles for the mass market.
That was all supposed to change with the introduction of the latest generation of electric vehicles and hybrids. After billions of dollars worth of investments by the auto industry and subsidies from many governments around the world, these vehicles are hitting the showrooms en masse. The only problem is that consumers are steering away from them, particularly all-electric vehicles, in droves.
According to LMC Automotive, roughly 50,000 electric vehicles and hybrids have been sold in the first half of 2012 in the world's major automotive markets. Those markets tracked by LMC include the United States, China and Europe. That figure is well below expectations the industry had for these type of vehicles.
Pure electric vehicle sales seem to need a spark. For example, General Motors (NYSE: GM) had expected to sell about 45,000 of its Chevy Volts this year. But bad publicity has kept sales down, with GM selling a mere 8,817 Volts (a gain of 22% from last year) in the first half of 2012. Sales for the all-electric Leaf from Nissan ADR (NASDAQOTH: NSANY.PK) have been disappointing this year too and have trailed those of the Volt the past several months in the U.S.
On the plus side, hybrids seem to be doing better. The Prius from Toyota Motor ADR (NYSE: TM) has moved away from being a niche car. In the first quarter of 2012 it became the world's third best-selling car with sales of 247,230 cars, trailing only the Toyota Corolla at 300,800 vehicles and the Focus from Ford Motor (NYSE: F) at 277,000 vehicles. Sales for even the Prius, however, have fallen back since. By the way, Ford says it will launch this fall the C-MAX Energi to compete directly with Toyota's Prius on price and performance.
So the main problem with the next generation of personal transportation seems to be centered in the all-electric vehicles segment. Why? Most industry analysts point to several factors including performance, comfort levels, improved mileage by internal combustion engine vehicles (Ford's EcoBoost, for example) and most importantly, price. Despite generous government subsidies, electric cars still cost much more than their hydrocarbon-fueled counterparts.
Even some of the major car companies remain skeptical of all-electric cars. Bill Reinert, Toyota's U.S. manager for advanced technology told Reuters, “The expectations have always been too high for electric cars.” Chrysler, now 61.8 percent owned by Italy's Fiat S.p.A. ADR (NASDAQOTH: FIATY.PK), is another skeptic. Its head, Sergio Marchionne, has killed plans for a Chrysler electric car. He said a year ago that his company loses $10,000 or more on every Fiat 500 Electric it produces.
Auto industry analysts also remain downbeat on the future of the electric car. PricewaterhouseCoopers Autofacts estimates pure electric vehicles will make up only 1 percent of of the global car market by 2017. Edmunds.com says electric vehicles and hybrids will make up a mere 1.5 percent of the U.S. market by 2017. Its senior green car editor, John O'Dell, describes conditions for electric vehicles this way: “It's going to be a slow slog.”
Of course, for every pessimist there is an optimist. GM has made the Volt the centerpiece of its efforts to take the title away from Toyota as the world's greenest automaker. Nissan's CEO Carlos Ghosn is unabashedly the most outspoken proponent of the electric car. He estimates that pure electric vehicle sales (including Nissan's Leaf) will make up 10 percent of the industry's global sales by 2020. It remains to be seen whether he and GM will be proved to be correct or the more cautious approach taken by Toyota and Fiat is the proper one.
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