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Cars What If Car Companies Actually Tried To Sell Their Electric Cars?

Published on February 5th, 2014 | by Zachary Shahan

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What If Car Companies Actually Tried To Sell Their Electric Cars?

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February 5th, 2014 by Zachary Shahan
 
I love putting together the monthly electric car sales reports. I love statistics, I love spreadsheets, I love charts, and I love electric cars. But there’s one thing that frustrates me every time — looking at the sales of electric cars that are “on the market” but available almost nowhere.

Sales of the Nissan LEAF and Tesla Model S crush the sales of other 100% electric cars. But there are several electric cars “on the market” that are really just available in a few places. I’m sure the Fiat 500e and Chevy Spark EV would sell really well if they were actually being mass-manufactured and sold in more markets than I have fingers on my right hand. They both cost less than the average new car, will save you a ton of money in the long run, drive better than their gasmobile siblings, have gotten great reviews, help to make your life simpler, help to cut more pollution out of your life, and can save you a lot of time. Aside from those two, the RAV4 would also probably see good sales, and the Honda Fit EV might — I know many Honda lovers are interested in the car.

On my part, it would be cool to see some actual competition every month in this arena, but my concern is also about much more. Two electric car models available nationwide can only have a minimal impact. A dozen or so electric car models would make a huge difference in regards to bringing greater awareness to the simple fact that electric cars are even on the market (a huge problem right now is lack of awareness). Furthermore, no car is perfect for everyone. People have allegiances to different brands and have different tastes and needs.

This is all obvious, but the issue is that we talk about electric car sales, we talk about consumer attitudes to electric cars, we talk about EV charging stations, etc, but consistently without pointing out that almost all of the electric cars “on the market” aren’t really on the market for most people. And they should be!

Anyway, that’s my rant of the day. In kinder terms, I guess I could say something like, “if you build it, they will come.” But I’m more driven to say it like this: Fiat, GM, Honda, and Toyota, sell your freakin’ electric cars nationwide!

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About the Author

is the director of CleanTechnica, the most popular cleantech-focused website in the world, and Planetsave, a world-leading green and science news site. He has been covering green news of various sorts since 2008, and he has been especially focused on solar energy, electric vehicles, and wind energy since 2009. Aside from his work on CleanTechnica and Planetsave, he's the founder and director of Solar Love, EV Obsession, and Bikocity. To connect with Zach on some of your favorite social networks, go to ZacharyShahan.com and click on the relevant buttons.



  • tina

    it’s a conspiracy. major car companies have bought stock in Teslamotors and are ‘driving ‘ business toward their investments, no need to be loyal. Ghosn is a supreme competitor and just wants to sells cars. LOL make up a story, any story.

  • Rockne O’Bannon

    “Anyway, that’s my rant of the day. In kinder terms, I guess I could say something like, “if you build it, they will come.” But I’m more driven to say it like this: Fiat, GM, Honda, and Toyota, sell your freakin’ electric cars nationwide!”

    Gee. Maybe you should wonder why that is not a problem in other countries. Hint hint. I suspect that the American distribution model is just broken. I mean, why would a dealership go to all the trouble of marketing, financing and supporting EVs in Enid, Oklahoma just to sell one vehicle?

    Does anyone believe that “building” a vehicle includes all the costs of a vehicle? Apparently, some people do.

  • Doug Cutler

    We’ve come a long way from “Who Killed the Electric Car” baby.

  • sault

    The companies making limited release “compliance cars” have a hostile culture / mindset / etc. against the policies that are forcing them to build these cars. They WANT the CARB regulations forcing them to build clean cars to fail just like they wanted them to fail over the past few decades. It is surprising that many of these compliance cars are actually on-par or even better than their gas-powered cousins, but the half-hearted production runs and abysmal to non-existent marketing show their true intentions. They want their predictions about the lack of EV viability to become a self-fulfilling prophecy because they do not appreciate being told what cars to make and they think that if this policy is successful, it will pave the way for more seemingly intrusive policies.
    Some companies have different corporate cultures and different mindsets are promoted over others too. Some companies will spend millions to get the acustics of their exhaust system right and others will spend milions more trying to fool the public into thinking bigger, heavier vehicles are somehow safer than smaller ones. (This is only true in a limited sense BECAUSE there are so many big, heavy vehicles on the roads to begin with!), Vehicle styling, brand image, horsepower…each company prioritizes these things differently and groupthink tends to build up over the years. Certain assumptions about oil depletion, climate change, pollution and other issues become enshrined in corporate philosophy either implicitly or explicitly. Hiring, firing, transfer and promotion decisions are all influenced by the pervasive corporate culture. In the end, you need strong leadership at the top to change or institute a corporate culture that is markedly different from the way things used to be done since EVs are also a huge departure from the way things used to be done. Carlos Ghosn and Elon Musk are a few examples of the type of leadership required to fully embrace the potential of electric vehicles.

    • http://zacharyshahan.com/ Zachary Shahan

      Excellent summary. Starting at the bottom: I saw a great presentation (still meaning to publish about it) at EVS27 that showed that major auto companies started getting series about EVs after key CEO changes… *every time*.

      Thank goodness for Carlos Ghosn & Elon Musk! And Bob Lutz to an extent, tbh.

      Regarding the 1st part: yes, I think I’m simply going to call these companies out more and more. So tired of reporting on poor sales numbers that come from these companies no trying to sell their cars.

      It is indeed amazing that some EVs have come out better that their gas siblings. But then again, not really — it’s pretty hard to make an EV that’s worse than a gas car these days. :D

  • http://cultoclock.wordpress.com/ Cult O’Clock

    Fiat’s CEO hates electric cars. Chevy apparently thinks the Spark is like the EV1 and doesn’t really want to sell them. Why else would they make the interior look like a hot tub? BMW can’t seem to keep up with their i3 and I’m guessing it’s because they’re hoping not to sell them. Not enough money in the cars for their bottom line. Nissan’s commitment to EV’s is admirable but other companies are playing it safe. It’s all about the money.

    • http://zacharyshahan.com/ Zachary Shahan

      Fiat: yep, not my favorite CEO :D

      GM/Chevy: Get the impression that Lutz was really the key reason the Volt was a serious product, and that has changed with him primarily moving on.

      BMW: i think they’re trying to play it safe and see what demand really is. think they’ll jack up production if they see it holding.

    • Ross

      I read the other day that the Audi A3 e-tron is going to cost as much as the Audi S3. Hope that isn’t true as they won’t sell any at that price.

  • Tyler057

    Its an economy question. Gasoline provision and internal combustion engine (ice) servicing support millions of families world wide. And for the car companies’ part their service departments are vital to many of their business models. Sure electric cars are way better than ice cars, but we haven’t figured out the bigger economic system transition yet. I think while there certainly are greedy monsters out there who just want to sell every last drop of oil, there are just as many well meaning people who either on the micro level don’t want to lay off a bunch of folks and force them, very real people with very real lives and families into a difficult period of transition; or on the macro level don’t want to take risks with national and international economic systems. Zachary, the switch to electric (or things like skytran and hyperloop) is correct, I think we all agree, but figuring out how to do it without devastating a whole lot of people in the process is the real trick. California is brave. But even oil starved jurisdictions like Japan lean more towards a switch to crappy hydrogen or natural gas, both for the economic system concerns I lay out here and concerns that their national electricity production and distribution infrastructure wouldn’t be able to handle a fully electric auto fleet. If Toyota and Honda were less attached to concerns of the state and their service departments I’m sure they’d be acting more like Nissan. Where can we find more Nissans and Californias?

    • http://zacharyshahan.com/ Zachary Shahan

      Understand all that. Just venting. And trying to put a little pressure on these companies. Beyond what you wrote, there’s also this:

      “some super interesting commentary about the culture of the larger auto companies and how that relates to their (super slow) transition to EVs is concerned (that part starts at around 50 minutes in). From that part, another interesting thing to note is that the budget for electric car development used to largely come out of the PR budgets(!) or the advanced propulsion budgets (which is apparently not a very serious section of these companies) — up to about a year and a half ago — but it is now mostly coming out of drive-train budgets — which indicates that they’re really starting to take this transition seriously. But the slow, entrenched business culture when it comes to this transformation really comes from a specific place, and is stronger than Marc had thought when he was at Tesla (before he went and advised these companies). In particular, car companies have gotten to the point where they outsource almost everything… but not the engines. So, engines are a critical part of the competitive advantage of their entire industry. They are also a central element in the power structures within these companies…. That all creates quite the wall when it comes to a transition to EVs, and it looks like it’s leaving a large door open for Tesla.”

      http://cleantechnica.com/2013/12/26/co-founder-tesla-starting-tesla-video/

      • Doug Cutler

        Is Tesla’s Elon Musk the new Henry Ford?

        • JamesWimberley

          No, it’s Renault’s Carlos Ghosn.

          • Doug Cutler

            Fine with that. As long as they’ve got electricity shooting out of their eyeballs.

        • http://zacharyshahan.com/ Zachary Shahan

          Elon has stated that Ben Franklin was one of the key people he looked up to in history. :D

          • Doug Cutler

            There you go . . . one of the first guys to have electricity shooting out of his eyeballs.

        • Rockne O’Bannon

          The customer is always right. They can have whatever kind of car they like, as long as its battery is made by Panasonic.
          –Henry/Elon mashup

          • Doug Cutler

            Ha ha . . . now I get it. Took me a minute. A reference to the famous Henry Ford quote, “they can have any colour they want as long as its black.”

      • Tyler057

        I’ll have to give that video a full watch tonight. The resistance is tough. But nice to hear its changing inside the headquarters. I noticed it was really strong on the sales floors and in the service departments of a number of Honda dealerships I visited about a year ago. Even to see an Insight I had to basically beg, and they had little tolerance for my fantasies about Fit EV. It seemed that in their minds electrics were the antithesis to why cars even existed.

        • http://zacharyshahan.com/ Zachary Shahan

          Amazingly good presentation + Q&A. But then again, by a co-founder of Tesla…

          Some really interesting stuff in there, but that bit I summarized from the Q&A was super interesting to me.

          Your Honda story: exactly why Tesla is so focused on selling its cars through Tesla galleries rather than conventional dealerships.

    • http://electrobatics.wordpress.com/ arne-nl

      Do you really think auto CEO’s slow innovation because they are concerned with the personnel at dealerships? Wow.

      I don’t think that is on their mind for one second. If they need to lay off some of their own staff to stay competitive, they do so in a whim. Even less will they be concerned with loss of employment at the dealerships.

      • Ronald Brakels

        Dealerships make a huge amount of money from car servicing and electric cars require less servicing, so there is tension there, although could try to take advantage of this by selling cars with 100,000 miles of free servicing. And the leaders of companies tend to reflect the culture of a company. Even when someone new comes into a position of power institutional capture can result in them doing the same old thing the same old way as the company did before. Turning a company around can be hard work.

      • Tyler057

        I do think there is concern in some instances and strong back room pressure from governments and social pressure from the likes of various business associations and fellow executives in others. Not to mention very real resistance to change internally. Why do you think they slow innovation?

        • A Real Libertarian

          “Why do you think they slow innovation?”

          Because innovation changes the market, and the market changing interrupts the looting spree?

    • Ross

      Upsetting this tired old business model should be fun (admittedly not for the people that can’t retrain or switch careers away from ICE maintenance).

  • Doug Cutler

    I think we have to hold out just a few more years for the main act to begin. End of decade next gen batteries arrive with the design aim of going head to head with the gas tank – or very nearly so. Then things should get interesting. Development on sold state lithium said to be pretty far along the path to commercialization – I hope I hope I hope I hope. After that lithium air or some other competing pathway.

    • http://zacharyshahan.com/ Zachary Shahan

      Yeah, 2017/2018 seems to be a big year in many CT reader minds (+ mine): http://cleantechnica.com/2013/08/05/an-electric-car-will-first-break-into-the-top-10-of-global-auto-sales-in/

    • http://electrobatics.wordpress.com/ arne-nl

      The main act has already begun, but only a few have noticed.

      By the end of the decade it will be obvious. If you are a manufacturer waiting for the trend to become obvious, you’re too late.

      • Doug Cutler

        Sure, spin it that way. I like that too.

      • http://zacharyshahan.com/ Zachary Shahan

        Like that. And I do think some big auto companies are going to suffer for their tardiness.

      • JamesWimberley

        Yes. Nissan/Renault are quietly building up a huge lead in the pure EV market, not only in production – rivals can rampup quickl by throwing money at the production lines – but even more in distribution, with a network of dealers knowledgeable about the product and committed to it.

    • Burnerjack

      I have heard of a “promising technology”(overused?) in the development of sugar based batteries. These batteries are reported to have an energy density a full order of magnitude greater than lithium ion types.
      If this comes to fruition, EVs will become the dominant choice.
      Chances are, the corporations which hold “entrenchment politics” at its core culture will be swept aside by the more dynamic, quickly adaptive, market-centric organizations. Capitalism at its best.

  • StefanoR99

    That select manufacturers sell their EVs only in California says an awful lot.

    Fiat don’t even sell the 500EV in Italy where gas is 5x the cost of California. Depressing stuff if you think about it.

    We’ve come far but there’s such a long way to go still.

    Thank god for Tesla.

    • Bob_Wallace

      My guess is that many manufactures aren’t ready to commit fully to EVs and are making only a few in order to learn how best to build them and to be ready to jump in when/if the market firms up.

      Selling the few they make in California will help them comply with California’s more strict emission/fleet mileage requirements.

      • Ronald Brakels

        That seems very likely. Any revhead can probably think of plenty of examples of car companies that messed up when they introduced a new model of internal combustion engine car and electric cars are a somewhat larger step. We’ll know when electric car manufacturers are confident as they’ll start offering 10 year or longer warranties with new cars which is quite doable as there is no exploding fuel engine or muffler to wear out.

      • Omega Centauri

        The conservative way to introduce a really new product is to have a long slow production rampup. That way if/when the early screwups are discovered the cost of the recalls won’t be overwhelming. One way is to have them theoretically available everywhere, but they are actually so scarce that there is a huge waiting line, and the service/repair departments have very little experience on that vehicle. Better to choose a few smallish markets, and then you can afford to train the service reps enough, and amortize the cost of any special equipment the dealership must buy to service them.

        • Steve Grinwis

          Or, you do what every car manufacturer does, and put your new tech into expensive luxury cars. That way, it sells in relatively small numbers, has bigger markups, and people don’t expect all the ‘fancy gadgets’to be dirt cheap to repair.

          No one is going to complain about the lack of nation wide availability in the new Cadillac…

      • http://zacharyshahan.com/ Zachary Shahan

        plus there’s this:

        “some super interesting commentary about the culture of the larger auto companies and how that relates to their (super slow) transition to EVs is concerned (that part starts at around 50 minutes in). From that part, another interesting thing to note is that the budget for electric car development used to largely come out of the PR budgets(!) or the advanced propulsion budgets (which is apparently not a very serious section of these companies) — up to about a year and a half ago — but it is now mostly coming out of drive-train budgets — which indicates that they’re really starting to take this transition seriously. But the slow, entrenched business culture when it comes to this transformation really comes from a specific place, and is stronger than Marc had thought when he was at Tesla (before he went and advised these companies). In particular, car companies have gotten to the point where they outsource almost everything… but not the engines. So, engines are a critical part of the competitive advantage of their entire industry. They are also a central element in the power structures within these companies…. That all creates quite the wall when it comes to a transition to EVs, and it looks like it’s leaving a large door open for Tesla.”

        http://cleantechnica.com/2013/12/26/co-founder-tesla-starting-tesla-video/

    • http://zacharyshahan.com/ Zachary Shahan

      Ditto.

  • Jim Seko

    I don’t watch TV much but I’ve seen litterally hundreds of ads on the web for the Chevy Volt. And the advertising worked. I got a 2013 Volt last June.

    • Jim Seko

      My other car is a 2012 Leaf. The Leaf is also marketed well on the inter webs.

      • http://zacharyshahan.com/ Zachary Shahan

        You rock. :D And I’m sure you are enjoying the electric drive! :D

    • http://zacharyshahan.com/ Zachary Shahan

      Yep, just about the only two cars. I decided not to get into a discussion of the Volt this time. GM is clearly not broadly offering the Spark EV. Has done so with the Volt, but now the Volt sales are relatively low because of limitations in supply, but GM doesn’t seem to have any intention to increase production. So it’s sort of in a limbo spot.

  • DRVNMPKW

    I agree wholeheartedly with your points. It would really be nice if there was competition. I tried to test drive the Ford Focus electric for months after it was “available” for purchase or lease. In the DC metro area I could find none. I gave up and leased a 2012 Leaf.

    After 14 months I am absolutely sold on electric cars. BUT my driving requirements have changed and the Leaf no longer meets my needs. Instead of driving 42 miles to and from work I now need to drive 120 miles a day between three locations and do not have and have been unsuccessful getting a 220 charger at work. DC quick charging works occasionally. End result was I bought a used Prius (my third) to supplement the Leaf until the lease expires. I enjoy driving the Leaf so much more.

    • J_JamesM

      You have my condolences on that nightmarish commute.

    • http://zacharyshahan.com/ Zachary Shahan

      I was wondering about the FFE. Ford seems to be better at broadly offering its Energi models, at least I assume so given the sales & the way Ford’s EV guy talks about their EV strategy. But FFE sales are always super low. I figured price *might* be the reason for that, but had a hunch it wasn’t actually so easy to get,

      • Kyle Field

        I went in to the local ford dealership in response to a mailer advertising their FFE and fusion offerings…only to find that of the 5 models they were advertising, they only had a C-Max Hybrid (not even the plug in version). :(

        • http://zacharyshahan.com/ Zachary Shahan

          Wow, that’s disappointing. Good news is: looks like their sales could also be much higher.

          So, it looks like only the Leaf and Model S are really so widely available. And even they have been held back by supply issues. But that’s just been cleared up for the Leaf, and will soon be cleared up for the Model S.

          Looks like the Leaf may end up being the Prius of the EV world, and the Model S the… Model S.

          • Kyle Field

            I agree…disappointing and also that the Leaf is shaping up as the Prius of the EV market – which is huge considering that the hybrid market was/is just a stop gap market between gas and EV whereas EV IS the new market. Gotta love Carlos Ghosn’s vision for Nissan :)

          • Bob_Wallace

            I wonder what LEAF/EV sales would be like had we not been hit with the Great Depression?

            Not only did people almost cease buying new cars but they also became more conservative/risk adverse.

          • Ross

            It’s a far cry from the Nissan Bluebird.

          • http://zacharyshahan.com/ Zachary Shahan

            Agreed. One of my favorite cleantech leaders.

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