Are Gasoline Prices Really Affecting EV Sales?

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Christopher ArcusBy Christopher Arcus, Automotive X Prize Competitor, Design Engineer, Dedicated CleanTechnica Reader

Headlines say EV owners trade their cars in for SUVs because gas is cheap. But what do the sales numbers say?

What’s With the Downer on Earth Day?

Is that really true? Lets look beneath the headlines. For 2014, the top plug-in models in terms of sales were the Nissan LEAF, the Tesla Model S, and the Chevy Volt. Chevy Volt sales have been dropping with the anticipation of a new model release. Nissan LEAF sales were healthy all of last year, but the first quarter of 2015 did not match 2014’s first quarter. Tesla sales are up, with 2,450 sold in March.

EV sales for 2014 were up 27% from the previous year. Plug-in hybrids rose 13% to 55,245 sales in 2014, and sales of purely battery-electric cars rose 44% to 63,393, led by the Nissan LEAF, which contributed nearly half at 30,200 cars. With the Tesla increasing production of the Model S to 1,000 units a week, those numbers could change considerably this year.

Overall, plug-in car sales are up year over year for every month this year. Reading further, we find out that most models are in short supply. For now, many models’ sales numbers are determined by production and availability. Clearly, the “compliance car” numbers are limited on purpose by the producers.

Again, total plug-in sales are up year over year for the first three months of 2015.

Are EV owners dumping them for SUVs?

The headlines are puzzling. Edmunds declared EV and hybrid owner loyalty is down. Yet, we have the Nissan LEAF with an IHS owner loyalty award in 2014 from Polk.

Something’s gotta give. Remember that there were only three plug-in vehicles selling in any large numbers last year.

It’s hard to imagine low owner loyalty in Tesla buyers (the owners happiest with their cars). They are too busy showing off their crazy acceleration to unsuspecting little old ladies. (What more proof could you ask for?) And Volt owners were the happiest with their cars for two years running before the Model S came along.

What does this mean? The Edmunds story threads the words somewhat finely. One clue is in the phrase “hybrids and EVs.” There lies part of the tale. EV sales are still much smaller than hybrids despite growing steadily. Hybrid sales are dominated by the Prius, due for a refresh. Lately, buying patterns show more interest in EVs than hybrids, but hybrids are still getting into the hands of many more mainstream buyers. Since Prius sales dominate hybrids, I would guess that some Prius sales are going to other vehicles. But Prius to SUV? The number is only 22% of Prius owners trading to an SUV.

Is owner loyalty affected by gas price?

Good question. At the source of the article declaring hybrid and electric vehicles struggling to maintain owner loyalty, the reader response was swift and negative. Edmunds defended its research by stating that owner loyalty was down for the first three months of 2015, among the Leaf, Volt, and Prius. Notably absent from the response was Tesla’s owner loyalty numbers. What is also missing from this is causality. A link between hybrid and EV sales is implied, but not proven. But part of what is missing here is that early adopter owner loyalty is very high, leading to later decreases. When one looks at a chart of gas price versus EV sales, there is no great correlation.


Numbers Can Say Anything You Want

Here are some examples. In 2012, Polk said most hybrid owners don’t buy another one.

Yet, not much later, it said the Prius wins an owner loyalty award?

The secret is hidden in the numbers. The Prius won an owner loyalty award with 38.9% owner loyalty. That’s how more than half of Prius hybrid owners could elect to buy something else, but Toyota still gets an owner loyalty award. When you put it that way, the headlines have a flat tire.

But here is the real face-palm. There are no electric SUVs! One can hardly expect an EV owner with a growing family to buy an electric SUV if there aren’t any on the market. On the other hand, Volvo’s recently introduced PHEV XC90 has had unexpected demand.

So, maybe owner loyalty has decreased in the first three months of 2015. Maybe the word “struggling” seems colorful, but it doesn’t seem so bad with EVs receiving owner loyalty awards and perhaps even seeing stronger owner loyalty (if you pulled them out to examine alone rather than lumping them with the Prius). It’s a little early to tell with only one quarter of the year so far anyhow. But could the real problem be that there are not enough hybrid and electric SUVs for owners to grow into?

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